REF rivals square off over value of impact proposal

Supporters debate opponents at round table event as consultation nears end. Zoë Corbyn reports

December 10, 2009

Academics on both sides of the "impact" debate have gone head-to-head as the consultation on the proposals for the research excellence framework draws to a close.

In a round table discussion held by Times Higher Education, two academics in favour of using research impact as a means of allocating funding in the forthcoming REF met two vehement critics of the proposals, mirroring the wider debate within the sector.

The consultation on the REF proposals will close on 16 December.

Kathy Sykes, professor of sciences and society at the University of Bristol, and Gerry Kelleher, deputy vice-chancellor for strategic planning at Manchester Metropolitan University, argued that although there were issues with the practicalities and the proposed 25 per cent weighting was too high, the principle of including impact in the REF was sound.

Professor Sykes said: "We have to wake up and smell the coffee ... if we can't show our relevance, we may not have any future funding."

The measurement of impact should be introduced "gently", she said, while noting that although academics had initially been "really scared" by the proposals, after "talking, reflecting and learning together" they had begun to see that their work did have "lots of impact".

The inclusion of the new component in the REF, which will replace the research assessment exercise as the means of allocating about £2 billion a year in research funding, offered a "much richer notion" of how to assess research, Professor Kelleher added.

But their views were rejected by James Ladyman, professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol, and John Allen, professor of biochemistry at Queen Mary, University of London, both of whom oppose the impact agenda and are among the 13,500 people to have signed the University and College Union petition against the inclusion of impact in the REF.

Although the pair acknowledged the importance of demonstrating relevance and of making the case for funding, they argued that impact should not be linked to funding.

Professor Allen said the REF proposals were "the next stage in the top-down political control over what researchers are allowed to do".

Professor Ladyman highlighted a raft of "distorting effects" that he claimed were already occurring as a result of the impact agenda.

He claimed that appointments were already being made on the basis of impact rather than scholarship, and said that academics were also leaving the country as a result.

He also suggested that scholars would move out of areas in which they were internationally renowned into areas where they believed they could make a short-term impact.

The most profound impact of arts and humanities scholarship - its effect on students - had not been included in the Higher Education Funding Council for England's definition, he said, adding that the best research would have the highest impact in any event.

But his position was labelled "hugely dangerous" by Professor Kelleher. "In effect, what it starts to say is that we don't have to explain."

He said senior managers would be "completely bonkers" if they began to appoint researchers on the basis of their impact, given the unpredictable nature of the measure.

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