Impact weighting increased in UK’s REF 2021

Hefce stops short of adopting Lord Stern’s proposal to include university-wide impact in research assessment scores

September 1, 2017
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Case studies that document the impact of academic research will count for 25 per cent of a university’s score in the next research excellence framework, up from 20 per cent in the previous exercise, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has confirmed.

But the funding body will not bring in a new element that measures the impact of each university as a whole for the next exercise. Instead, it will launch a pilot project on “institutional impact” to see how best to introduce this in the future.

Other changes that the council has made to improve the assessment process include appointing designated individuals on subject assessment panels to ensure that interdisciplinary research is assessed fairly.

Final decisions about how universities can select staff to be submitted for assessment and who can take the credit for the work of people who have moved institution during the REF cycle are still to be made by Hefce.

The REF is a nationwide research assessment exercise that evaluates the quality of academic work coming out of universities. Each institution’s score is used to determine how much funding they get from the government’s block grant for research, known as quality-related (QR) funding.

After the previous exercise, REF 2014, the government commissioned Lord Stern, who was then president of the British Academy, to review the process of university research funding. He made several recommendations including introducing an assessment of institution-wide impact so that universities could showcase the effectiveness of interdisciplinary research.

But Hefce’s initial plans for REF 2021, published today, say that this will not be included in the next exercise. Instead, a pilot project starting early next year will examine how this can be implemented in the future.

An institution’s submission to the REF covers three areas: the research output of its academics (which currently accounts for 65 per cent of the overall score), the environment they work in (which contributes 15 per cent), and the impact of their research (which accounts for 20 per cent).

Lord Stern recommended that in future exercises the relative contribution for outputs remain at 65 per cent and that impact account for no less than 20 per cent. Hefce has announced that the weighting given to impact will rise to 25 per cent in the next exercise and that research outputs will now count for 60 per cent to take account of that uplift.

Commenting on the change, Jo Johnson, the minister for universities, science, research and innovation, said: “The decision by Hefce and the higher education funding bodies to place greater emphasis on the impact of research reflects our industrial strategy commitment to ensure that the vital work conducted by our world-leading research base progresses from ideas to economic and social benefit.

“Through our record investment of £4.7 billion to 2020-21 for research and development, we are ensuring that the UK remains at the forefront of innovations that will have national and global impact,” he added.

Hefce’s document, Initial Decisions on the Research Excellence Framework 2021, also outlines changes that the organisation hopes will better support interdisciplinary research. The panels of experts that evaluate research in each subject-level unit of assessment will now include at least one person whose job it is to make sure that interdisciplinary research is assessed fairly.

Hefce will add a mechanism to the submissions system that universities can use to flag up interdisciplinary work for assessors. There will also be a new section added to the environment template that institutions can use to describe how they support this type of work.

Other minor changes to the assessment process outlined in the report include rejigging the subjects that are included in each unit of assessment. All engineering research, for example, will now be assessed in a single unit (in REF 2014 there were four), and the 2014 geography, environmental studies and archaeology unit will be split in two.

Hefce is still consulting universities about their views on some of Lord Stern’s more controversial recommendations. One is that institutions should submit work for assessment from all their research staff in a bid to stop universities gaming the system by selecting only their best staff for evaluation.

Lord Stern also suggested that in cases where academics move institutions during the REF cycle, the university where the work was conducted should get the credit in assessment. He hoped that this would stop universities poaching top researchers from each other in an attempt to boost their scores.

The consultation on both these issues will close at the end of the month, and Hefce is expected to respond in the autumn.

Today’s document also gives the proposed timeline for REF 2021. University submissions are due in 2020 and will cover research produced by academics over a seven-year period, from August 2013 to July 2020. The census date of the exercise, which measures the number of eligible staff at each institution, has yet to be decided.

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com

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