REF ‘leads to short-term research approach’

German academic looking at UK system raises concerns over incentives created by research excellence framework

March 4, 2016
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The UK’s research excellence framework (REF) discourages more innovative research and encourages a short-term approach to scholarship, according to a German academic looking at its impact on academia.  

Len Ole Schäfer, a PhD student in sociology at the University of Bamberg, said that his research had come to the conclusion that academic performance assessment means that “long-term speculative work is likely to be inhibited and short-termism is encouraged”.

“The literature suggests that there are innovation-hindering effects which reduce academic performance and diversity, and lead to a concentration of resources,” he told academics at the UCL Institute of Education on 3 March.

As well as looking at existing research, Mr Schäfer also interviewed a series of UK academics, some of whom had raised concerns that exercises such as the REF encourage universities to poach star researchers just in time to boost their score, which disrupts longer-term research endeavours.

Although his sample size is small – Mr Schäfer interviewed about half a dozen academics at a research-intensive university – his findings chime with other concerns raised about the incentives created by the REF.

Lord Stern of Brentford, president of the British Academy, is currently leading a review into the assessment.

In a letter to Times Higher Education in 2014 written jointly with Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, he asked: “Are researchers feeling pressured to adopt short-term horizons and a narrow focus, and chasing publication rather than following their own judgements on which are the most fruitful avenues for research and most likely to yield major outcomes?”

“Is the REF incentivisation of universities to hire stars in the closing months, like an imminent transfer deadline in the Premier League, really a way to build a long-term scholarly department?” the letter added.

His report is expected by the summer.

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