We can win the double

With the REF research assessment has come of age but much still needs to be done, says David Eastwood

May 29, 2008

Scholarship is a shared endeavour, as is its evaluation. For more than two years we have been working with the higher education sector, Government and other partners to develop a robust successor to the research assessment exercise. Consultation and reflection have been key to devising a framework that is workable, credible and capable of sustaining our research base.

The broad shape and key features of the REF are now in place. We have the road map to deliver a system that will sustain a world-class research base and be flexible enough to capture the dynamic nature of research activity, variation between subjects and different kinds of research impact. A single framework with variable geometry, appropriately combining metrics, expert assessment and peer review, is the prize that is within our grasp.

It was clear from the consultation that an essentially arbitrary distinction between science and non-science risked doing harm by creating unnecessary dichotomies between disciplines. The revised approach will ensure that interdisciplinary research is valued appropriately, and that researchers, research groups and research leaders are free to pursue the most challenging and rewarding agendas, without having to second-guess the best fit with research assessment or to worry about the value accorded translational impact.

Research assessment in this country has been under scrutiny for the past 18 years. In review after review we have paid particular attention to what universities and a wide range of partners have said about its impact, its incentives and its unintended consequences. The result has been a series of additions and refinements to the RAE. This has created a system that is fit for purpose, but one that has lost its classical simplicity. There is unease in some quarters that it is not flexible or responsive enough to cope with all requirements.

We now have a much clearer vision of what needs to be done to address these concerns. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has announced this week its plans for an ambitious programme over the next 12 months leading up to a further consultation on key elements of operational detail. This will enable us to announce decisions in a year's time, before proceeding to a full exercise to produce bibliometric indicators of quality in England, for appropriate subjects, in 2010.

The next stage will see a thorough and rigorous pilot exercise in generating bibliometric quality profiles to evaluate options. These will include ways of collecting and analysing citation data for building bibliometric quality profiles. We will also investigate other statistical indicators of quality and how these might be used alongside bibliometric indices or expert review. Simultaneously, we will develop robust but less burdensome forms of peer review, both to complement metrics and to give judgments where metrics are silent or insufficiently well developed. All of these strands will be taken forward, working closely with other UK higher education funding bodies and with a broad range of other partners and stakeholders, including the users of research.

But our vision goes deeper. We intend also to seize the opportunity to review the structures and relationships between research assessment and funding. Having established a healthy dialogue with the sector, we want to explore how assessment and funding can be optimised within the new framework. The pilots will enable us to establish the likely characteristics of the new mode of assessment; to balance the ambitions of institutions and the needs of the research base; to model likely behavioural and funding consequences; and to ensure that equal opportunities and career flexibilities are properly protected.

Our task is to allocate resources as fairly as we can within a robust system, without encouraging management practices focused on short-term benefits. The sector's task is to ensure that these resources are invested to produce excellent research now and to build for the future. With the REF we can win the double: reducing the burden created by highly detailed assessment processes while also cementing an appropriate and mature relationship between Hefce and the sector in terms of identifying and delivering world-class research.

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