Impact hostility is 'melting away'

Hefce director tells conference a 'positive story' as consensus grows in REF pilot. Paul Jump reports

July 1, 2010

"Consensus is breaking out around the sector" about the wisdom of including assessments of the impact of work in the UK's research excellence framework.

So said David Sweeney, director of research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, at a conference held at King's College London last week.

Mr Sweeney told the Impact in the Context of REF conference that the pilot project to test Hefce's approach to assessing impact was going "really well" - although it had also thrown up various issues that would be resolved in consultation with the assessment panels.

The pilot exercise is examining the impact during the past five years of research carried out since 1993 in medicine, physics, English, earth systems and environmental science, and social work and social policy.

The 29 institutions that volunteered for the pilot were given from Christmas until March to submit a number of documents, including one case study for every 10 academics and an "impact assessment" that provides an overview of departmental impact.

Submissions are now being assessed by panels containing a mixture of academics and users, which will report this month.

"We see ways through every one of the issues raised, but we don't always know which way we will take because we are still assessing feedback," Mr Sweeney said.

Representatives of the panels in English and medicine were positive about the pilots. Alex Markham, chair of the medical panel, said he had been amazed how easily his panel had been able to reach consensual decisions. "I am now persuaded by this process although, like lots of academics, I was initially sceptical," he said.

Representatives of three of the institutions that had submitted to the panels - the universities of Glasgow, Oxford and York - agreed that academics' initial hostility had tended to melt away when they realised they could articulate the impact of their research.

But they all said the exercise had been laborious, with a lot of toing and froing between academics and research managers.

There was also consensus that Hefce's criteria for the impact statements needed to be clearer, and that some subjects - notably physics - were harder to handle than others.

Institutions also struggled to obtain information about the impact of their research when it had been taken up by industry because of concerns about commercial confidentiality. Kevin Cullen, director of research and enterprise at the University of Glasgow, said his biggest concern was institutions' lack of control over impact, because it is usually created by users such as governments and companies.

Mr Sweeney said that chairs-designate for each REF panel would be announced shortly.

Asked whether he thought the government would press ahead with the REF impact element, he said: "Hefce will review the evidence before coming to a decision and the government will want to look at it, too. But I am giving a positive story about how it is going and I am sure the government will hear that."

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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