Rosa Freedman: REF impact rules ‘unfair on researchers’

Human rights expert claims ‘inaccurate’ impact submission written on her work by old employer highlights why funding rules should change

July 27, 2022

A law professor has called for funding generated by impact case studies to follow individual researchers rather than their employers in the UK’s next Research Excellence Framework (REF) after her former university submitted a statement based on her work five years after she had left.

Rosa Freedman, professor of law, conflict and global development at the University of Reading, said she is unhappy that the University of Birmingham submitted an impact case study to the 2021 REF based on her efforts to secure reparations for thousands of Haitians affected by a cholera epidemic triggered by the arrival of United Nations (UN) peacekeepers following an earthquake in January 2010, having not been consulted on her work by her old employer since 2016.

The UN denied responsibility for introducing the disease, causing the deaths of more than 10,000 people and affecting up to a million more in the Caribbean state, and later claimed absolute immunity from legal processes that would have held it to account and provided remedies to victims.

However, Professor Freedman and her then colleague at Birmingham Nicolas Lemay-Hébert, now at Australian National University, played a central role in securing a political resolution that acknowledged the wrongs done and harms caused, leading to a direct apology to cholera victims from the UN's secretary general and obtained commitments to provide $400 million (£333 million) in reparations.

Professor Freedman told Times Higher Education that she was not happy that her former employer had written and submitted an impact case based on her Haiti work without her input, which, she said, had led to several inaccuracies “despite me offering to update them on what had happened since that time”.

“They haven’t got anything terribly wrong but I don’t think they’ve got it right, either – it’s concerning that this account of my work is being used to allocate funding when it misses both the essence and the key outcomes from the work we did on this topic,” said Professor Freedman.

According to one estimate, an impact case study graded 4* ("world-leading") is likely to net an academic’s university almost £48,000 a year in quality-related (QR) funding, or £333,000 over a seven-year period, given that impact accounted for 25 per cent of a unit’s overall score and QR allocation in the 2021 REF.

Unlike research outputs, which could be submitted by an eligible staff member’s current university on the census date in March 2021 and former institutions where the research was carried out, impact case studies were “non-portable” with the work remaining with employers even when staff have moved on.

That rule was designed to reward departments’ commitment to producing impact beyond the academy, but Professor Freedman questioned whether crediting impact solely to institutions was fair in cases where studies centred heavily on the work of one or two researchers.

“This work could not have been done by anyone else – it was my networks and contacts that made it happen, and it was usually done on weekends and evenings,” she said.

“I didn’t do it because I wanted a REF impact statement, but it doesn’t seem right that all the rewards flow to an institution which has had nothing to do with me for years,” added Professor Freedman.

In future, researchers may reconsider undertaking risky and arduous research related to impact rather than focusing on more standard outputs, given the current rules, she continued.

“There has been such a push to eliminate the REF transfer window that I don’t think they’ve considered it from a researcher’s perspective – it can’t be right that work so closely associated with one academic can be entered on their behalf with no input from them whatsoever,” she added.

In a statement, Birmingham said Professor Freedman was aware that it was submitting her work, though was "sorry if Professor Freedman is unhappy with the content of the impact case study.

"In the rules of the REF, impact belongs to the institution not the individual and impact had clear criteria that it had to be based on research of 2* or more carried out at the institution from 2000," it continued.

"Given the long window, many impact cases were based on research from those who had previously left the institution or left academia," it added.

On the issue of “non-portability” of impact studies, David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England, which oversees the REF, said it was “right that universities get credit for sustained investment in staff producing impact”, but it was “reasonable” for staff to ask why impact did not follow them in the same way as outputs – an issue that would be considered by the ongoing review of the REF.


Print headline: REF rules ‘unfair on researchers’

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Reader's comments (2)

The weight given to citations and issues such as those above, bring into question whether the current rules and process are fit for purpose, as a way of allocating such large amounts of research money to Universities. I even question whether more Government research funding should be given to businesses and non Universities to get the best value for tax payers. It could be that investing so much money in research performed by Universities is one of the reasons UK productivity is so low compared to other countries. I wonder if there is any appropriate research on what and where research gives the best return on investment? For decades, it seems, that much of the research done by UK academics wins great international awards but is not that successful for the UK when it comes to the commercial benefits arising from implementing the research.
REF is such a costly mess that has not improved significantly despite all (more costly) attempts to revise it - it should just be scrapped.