REF and policymakers overlook state-funded research

Vital academic work still missed by impact criteria and civil servants, forum hears

October 17, 2013

Policymakers are often unaware of publicly funded research “sometimes hidden away in the footnotes” of the guidance presented to them, a senior civil servant has acknowledged.

However, Mark Holmes, deputy director for impact and innovation infrastructure at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, said that research “leads to better outcomes as well as better policy”.

Mr Holmes was among speakers at a seminar organised by the Westminster Higher Education Forum on the social impact of academic research – and how far its different dimensions are captured by the research excellence framework.

The event also heard from David Halpern, director of the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insight Team (often called the “Nudge Unit”), who explained the process by which research had become more central to policymaking.

In the past, he said, “academics used to pull together research with policy implications and throw it over the wall into Whitehall”. This haphazard process was improved through the creation in 2001 of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, which brought together researchers and civil servants in “an elite unit at the heart of government chucking ideas over the walls into other departments”. But often these ideas were too remote from departmental thinking to be easily taken up.

The birth in 2010 of the Behavioural Insight Team, said Dr Halpern, offered a new way of working based on “research within government”. As an example, he said that if the government wanted to encourage organ donation, letters could be sent out to people incorporating references to social norms (“thousands of people who see this page decide to register”) or reciprocity (“you may need an organ yourself in the future”) – to see what proved most effective in influencing behaviour.

This amounted to a form of practical scientific method, in Dr Halpern’s view, since “you have to try things out and test them. We don’t know what works in advance.”

The seminar, held at the Royal Society on 10 October, also offered academics, university leaders and research “users” an opportunity to subject official government views to scrutiny.

Several participants wondered if much valuable work being done by universities slipped through the net of the REF “impact” criteria.

Sophie Duncan, deputy director of the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, suggested that “universities are not good at telling stories about or quantifying their social impact” – which, like their direct economic impact, was still underestimated by the public.

Lianne Deeming, who is director for business excellence at Tata Steel and serves on an REF “user” panel, saw a case for more investment in riskier areas of research, “because you often learn from failure”.

And Jane Tinkler, research fellow at the London School of Economics, reported on research that indicates that policymakers often valued academics less for specific research projects than for “expertise”, “long-term views” and “conceptual frameworks”, which she was “not sure the REF captures”.

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