REF reforms to seek ‘accountability without complex bureaucracy’

Science minister Amanda Solloway announces review of UK’s main research assessment exercise

October 20, 2020
Source: iStock

Major reforms to the UK’s research excellence framework will seek to deliver “accountability for public funding without complex bureaucracy”, the Westminster government has said.

Amanda Solloway, the science minister in Boris Johnson’s administration, was set to announce the review during a speech on 20 October.

The REF, which is used to distribute about £2 billion in research funding annually, is currently based on peer assessments of research outputs conducted in universities across the UK. Panels also examine the impact of that research as well as the environment in which it was conducted.

However, academics have criticised the administrative burden attached to participating in the exercise, and have claimed that the results are open to “game-playing”.

Speaking at an event organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Elsevier, Ms Solloway was expected to confirm that Research England would work with its counterparts in the devolved nations on a plan to “reform” the REF.

The shake-up “could allow researchers to spend more quality time focusing on diverse and transformative projects, while achieving accountability for public funding without complex bureaucracy”, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said. It is due to take place once the 2021 assessment exercise has concluded.

Ms Solloway was due to say that the UK needed “sensible ways to evaluate research”.

“We need to make bold decisions, which is why today I have asked Research England to work with the devolved nations to develop plans to reform the research excellence framework,” Ms Solloway was expected to say.

“These reforms will make certain the UK remains at the forefront of research and innovation and create an environment where our incredible researchers can unleash their full potential.”

UK Research and Innovation has already said that it is keen to give greater weighting to universities’ efforts to develop research careers and a supportive academic culture in the next edition of the REF.

The REF review forms part of a wider Westminster government agenda to reduce bureaucracy in research funding, which is seen as being pushed forward by Mr Johnson’s top adviser, Dominic Cummings. This has already led to a simplification of grant application processes, and plans for a new research funder supporting “high risk, high reward” projects.

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Reader's comments (4)

The amount of effort and time being diverted from research and teaching to service the REF is ridiculous. If someone wants to make such an assessment of 'research quality' (a dubious concept at the best of times) they should do it themselves. Do you ask the pig to go weigh himself and report back, then dispute the number he gives you?
Any policies or changes to REF are pointless because every university and department engages in mock REF reviews to determine which research staff is REF-able. REF panellists and ex-panellists are often used for such mock REF reviews. And these panellists have no accountability whatsoever so they can *discriminate* and *subvert* any REF polices by explicitly down rating research from non traditional sources and research from women or minorities with impunity. REF cannot do anything to them because mock REF reviews are done outside the jurisdiction of REF and is done by individual universities and depts. Mock REF reviewers are PAID for their work. This then filters all these research that do not get submitted by the department for REF in the first place - depts and universities will then take these mock REF reviewers' ratings and decide which academic staff is returned for REF by gaming the system (e.g., contract modification to teaching). What I am saying is that mock REF reviews can subvert ANY diversity and equality policies for REF because this discrimination began even before REF submission by some of these REF reviewers in mock REF reviews. Some of these REF reviewers are even blatant about their discrimination because it is a mock review and they are not accountable in this mock exercise to REF.
Totally agree. Mock REF reviews are done by panels whose membership is unknown, it is unknown what checks are carried to vet them to ensure they are unbiased. The excuse that is given for the opacity is that journals do the same. But this is nonsense. 1. Journals don’t employ you. They don’t have the responsibility as an employer to protect you from discrimination. 2. Journals often publish list of people who referee for them and the details of the editorial board members are public knowledge. 3. There is no reason to believe that the panel’s evaluations will match those of the REF panel. In these panels may be instructed to conservatively rank papers so that departments don’t get the flack when the results actually come out (lowering expectations strategy). So where these are used for internal evaluations too, academics get wrong end of the stick. Ex REF panel members should be barred from undertaking such consulting gigs.Is there a free and fair process to be on the REF panel? Why isn’t anyone asking why tax payers are funding this?
Or perhaps do what Hong Kong does. Hong Kong still calls it the RAE but its criteria is basically more or less the same as the REF in the UK. However, the assessment is much stricter in the sense that everyone on the academic track must submit 4 pieces for assessment at each cycle. So it doesn't matter whether you are a junior Lecturer or a senior Professor, so long as you are on the academic and research track, you would have to submit 4 pieces for assessment. This way, it reduces the gaming of the system by mock REF reviews.