REF sceptic to lead review into research assessment

Baron Stern of Brentford has previously raised concerns that the research excellence framework forces academics to focus too much on publishing articles

December 16, 2015
Baron Stern of Brentford
Source: British Academy
Lord Stern, president of the British Academy

A critic of the research excellence framework (REF) who has asked whether it forces researchers to “adopt short-term horizons and a narrow focus” and chase “publication rather than following their own judgements” will lead a review into the exercise, the government has announced today.

Baron Stern of Brentford, president of the British Academy, will chair the review, set to report in the summer of 2016.

It will look at how to cut the “administrative burden” on academics and will also “strengthen the focus on excellence”, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  

The key questions the review will ask is whether the REF is too costly and burdensome, whether it could incorporate metric-based measures of assessment such as article citations, and what incentives it creates for individual researchers and institutions.

The 2014 REF cost close to £250 million, and Lord Stern has previously asked in Times Higher Education “whether the burden could be reduced and the value of the process enhanced”.

Last year, in a joint letter with Sir Paul Nurse, then the president of the Royal Society, he asked: “Have criteria of quality become too narrow and formulaic in some subjects? 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?”

He also questioned whether the impact element of the REF was “insufficiently deep and broad”. The letter added: “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 BIS statement released today said that the review would look at how to “strengthen the focus on research excellence and impact while reducing administrative burden on the sector”.

It will also model a “simpler, lighter-touch method of research assessment that uses data and metrics more effectively while retaining the benefits of peer review”.

In a statement, Lord Stern said that “research assessment should not unwittingly introduce incentives for perverse behaviour, nor should it be overly burdensome. Excellence, properly defined, must remain the central basis for allocating support and funding for research.”

The Russell Group said in a statement: “While we are encouraged by Lord Stern’s intention to create a less ‘overly burdensome’ REF, we would be concerned if this resulted in any dilution of its rigour and international reputation.”

Dave Phoenix, chair of Million+ and vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, said it was "both surprising and disappointing" that the panel supporting the review "does not include any modern university. There are also no representatives from Wales, Northern Ireland or the funding councils and only one university from Scotland."

“This review must not undermine the long-standing principle that excellent research should be funded wherever it is found. Whilst we look forward to submitting evidence, in particular on the impact of research undertaken in modern universities, I hope the panel will take time to consider how it can proactively engage with the wider sector and other stakeholders," he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

It's good that a known sceptic of the REF will chair the review, but given the nature of these things I am sceptical of any positive outcome. The main research-intensive universities will fight tooth and nail to keep the REF more or less in its current form because they benefit from it and have learned to game it effectively, plus it gives managers a useful cosh with which to discipline academics. The focus on the bureaucratic burden will compel a focus on cost-savings and short-cuts that always end up returning to the use of metrics, despite their repeated discreditation. And most importantly of all, this review of the REF is taking place completely independently of the discussions around the TEF, despite the claim in the Green Paper that teaching has been sidelined by the focus on research. If this claim is true, it is obvious that the REF and TEF must be looked at *in the round*, with a view to genuinely rebalancing universities' limited resources between these two dominant activities. Instead, the TEF proposes to intensify pressure around teaching, without committing any additional resources, while a *standalone* REF review is highly unlikely to recommend any let-up in the pressures to produce new research. What's needed is a broad conversation about what universities are for, and what we want them to do, and then an allocation of time and resources that reflects that, not this piecemeal approach that simply loads ever more demands on academics, who are already working 50+ hours per week on average.

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