Stern aims for lower REF workload, more ‘game-changing’ research

Chair of independent review of research excellence framework also hopes to tackle 'game-playing'

July 28, 2016
Nicholas Stern, Baron Stern of Brentford
Source: Alamy

A research excellence framework that requires all research-active academics to be submitted but allows greater flexibility over what work to select would reduce administrative burden and allow for more “game-changing” research, according to the chair of a government-commissioned review.

The independent review of the REF, chaired by Baron Stern of Brentford, president of the British Academy, recommends that all research-active staff should be submitted, as opposed to the current system where managers can choose who to put in.

Lord Stern told Times Higher Education that not only would such an approach give a more accurate picture of an institution’s research strength, it would reduce the workload of the exercise for universities.

The selection of who to submit to the REF “consumes a great deal of time” currently, Lord Stern said. But he acknowledged that the scale of the reduction was difficult to quantify, and that managers would still have to decide which of an academic's outputs would be submitted.

“If you are asking the university to show its best work, because it’s about excellence, then that part of the selection is inevitable,” Lord Stern said. “I do think we could be making a major difference with putting in all staff, but it is not easy to quantify.”

Another key recommendation of the review is that, while the total number of outputs each unit of assessment should submit should continue to be a function of its staff numbers, the number of outputs that could be submitted by individual researchers could vary, and could be as low as zero for some staff members.

Such an approach, Lord Stern said, would allow for more long-term and “risky” research to be undertaken – work that did not necessarily result in a set number of journal articles in a specific period.

“We want people to feel pressure to produce because, like in any other activity, proactivity is important and accountability is important,” Lord Stern said. “But we have got to remember what we are trying to do also, which is not only produce very good stuff; we want to produce some game-changing stuff as well.”

The review’s recommendations have triggered concern that more academics with weaker research profiles will be moved on to teaching-only contracts, and that the gap between research and teaching will widen as a result.

Lord Stern said that this could be avoided with careful monitoring of data, and by ensuring that the REF closely integrates with the planned teaching excellence framework.

On the subject of the use of metrics to assess research, Lord Stern said that while some academics have advocated a REF based on metrics alone, he believed that peer review remained the “gold standard” for assessing the quality of research. Metrics should be used as “supplementary where appropriate”, he argued.

The review also recommends that outputs should be submitted by the institution where the work was “demonstrably generated”, even if the academic involved had since moved on.

Lord Stern said that this should encourage universities to invest in research, because it would remove the fear that they might not reap the benefits; and added that it should reduce “game-playing” such as recruitment of staff shortly before the REF census date and the recruitment of staff on fractional contracts who actually played a very limited role in an institution.

“I think we have had some distortions of the picture because suddenly someone appears where they weren’t before but all their output is taken with them…[in future] the accuracy should improve,” Lord Stern said.

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Print headline: Stern: flexible approach will ease burden of REF while encouraging more ‘risky’ research

Reader's comments (2)

How I read it, as someone who produces good research: lets not make life difficult for under-performers and above all else ensure that successful academics don't dare move and 'rent-seek' (ie expect a decent wage). More money for administrators and vice-chancellors. Even more than BREXIT, this is a wake-up call for all serious researchers to get out of the UK as soon as possible.
It seems to me there are some distinct and unexamined biases in the report: Stern is thinking from the perspective of employers rather than employees (i.e. the researchers, who come across as all rather difficult), the sciences rather than the humanities (hence the madness of focusing on the date a publication is contracted), and bigger and more established universities/departments rather than those with 'pockets of excellence'. These recommendations could substantially alter relations between research, researchers and universities. More at:

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