Inclusion of support for research careers in next REF welcomed

UKRI says research organisations will have ‘greater financial incentive’ to invest in supporting scholars

July 30, 2020
An athlete lends a helping hand to another contestant climbing up the warped wall
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An athlete lends a helping hand to another contestant climbing up the warped wall

Including assessments of how universities develop scholars’ careers and a supportive academic culture in the UK’s next research excellence framework could help to drive forward much-needed improvements, an academic said.

UK Research and Innovation said that it would put “appropriate weighting on research careers and research culture” in the consultation on the successor to REF 2021 to “drive change in institutional behaviour”.

In a document outlining its plans to implement the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, which it signed last year, it adds that it wants to ensure that research organisations have “greater financial incentive” to invest in supporting researchers and their careers.

“Research England, collaborating with the other UK HE funding bodies, will consult on strengthening the recognition for concordat implementation and wider research environment in the successor to REF 2021,” it says.

UKRI adds that “a step change in the support and development of researchers will ensure that the research and innovation system encourages diversity of thought and experience and retains talented researchers of all kinds”.

“We will reward the broad range of activities that researchers undertake that we consider essential to the conduct of excellent research and innovation,” it says.

The concordat, which was first published in 1992 and revised in 2005 and last year, commits signatories to promoting the importance of personal and career development for researchers, and to supporting diversity and equality in recruitment and progression.

Rory Duncan, UKRI director of talent and skills, said: “It’s vital that we as funders and a community ensure the people whose work contributes to research are recognised, valued and supported to realise their potential. We recognise that national research assessment exercises can have huge potential to drive positive change.”

In 2018, Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor of Brunel University London and now president of Universities UK, said that funding agencies should make universities commit to supporting the development of early career researchers if they want to secure grants.

Matthew Flinders, founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield and author of a recent Economic and Social Research Council report on research leadership, said that UKRI’s action plan was “very ambitious” and a “very welcome recognition of the systemic challenges that need to be addressed” when it comes to research careers and culture.

He also praised the way the plan framed equality, diversity and inclusion “not as a problem” but as “a potential challenge and opportunity” to recognise and harness the fact that different researchers have different talents.

Professor Flinders added that the inclusion of impact case studies in the REF has had a “very positive” effect on the culture of higher education and suggested that new measures on research careers and culture may have a similar impact.

However, he said that whether the commitment will drive progress will depend on its implementation and the response from universities.

“The question will be how the universities themselves recognise the changing research landscape and demonstrate that they have the ability, the agility and the ambition to evolve within it,” he said.

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