Reverse REF submission rule, says Willetts

Former universities minister says applied science is neglected as researchers chase publications for research excellence framework

December 2, 2019
David Willetts

Forcing universities to submit all their researchers to the UK’s main sector audit is discouraging academics from doing applied science, a former universities minister has argued.

In a paper setting out 12 policies to boost science and technology, published by The Policy Institute at King’s College London on 2 December, Lord Willetts calls for a reversal of the rule brought in for the 2021 research excellence framework that requires all active full-time researchers to submit at least one output.

It was introduced in November 2017 to eliminate game-playing by institutions, which were previously able to choose which researchers they submitted to the 2014 REF.

However, Lord Willetts, who was universities and science minister from 2010 to 2014 and is now a visiting professor at King’s, says that scrapping the policy would “boost practical applied science”, which, he claims, is often neglected as researchers chase publications in leading journals that can be submitted to the REF.

The framework’s promotion of a “classic academic picture of research excellence…drives a certain type of research excellence where advances at the boundaries of a discipline are rewarded rather than useful application”, says Lord Willetts.

The paper, The Road to 2.4 Per Cent, describes how a dramatic rise in spending on science promised by the three main political parties might be spent effectively, given that the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have all vowed to spend at least 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development. The Campaign for Science and Engineering estimated last year that public spending on R&D of £20 billion would be needed to meet the 2.4 per cent total target, an increase of £9 billion on baseline levels.

Lord Willetts calls on government to fund the full economic cost of research, instead of the 80 per cent that it does at present, at a cost of £1 billion a year. Universities are currently forced to find extra funds, often from the charitable sector or from international student fees, to make up this shortfall if they are successful in winning research funds.

Speaking at THE Live on 28 November, Lord Willetts said he was “optimistic” about the chances of obtaining more research funding given the cross-party consensus on the issue, despite promises from previous governments to hit the 2.4 per cent target going unfulfilled.

“There is a very strong commitment on this,” said Lord Willetts, who, in his paper, describes the main parties’ support as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to set our science and research budget on a new path”.

Speaking at THE Live, Lord Willetts added that extra money would need to be diverted into research council spending.

“If we do get 2.4 per cent or 3 per cent, part of the money has to go into core funding for research councils,” said Lord Willetts, noting that the “dowry offered by Theresa May of £2 billion [in 2016] came with political direction”.

“There is some realisation that this [freeze] cannot continue and we need to rescue the core funding.”

However, Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and a former higher education minister under Labour, who also spoke at THE Live, expressed doubt that this would happen.

“If you get a big increase in investment, the iron law of politics is that there will be strings attached,” he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

If research is to have real impact rather than just be for other academics to read in academic journals, there must be incentives for high quality applied research. While the REF impact measurement helps, this for a relatively small number of case studies. Focusing on top journals alone rather than a wider approach is likely to lead to 'more of the same' research that may be rigorous with statistical significance but lacks real world meaning and impact.


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