The REF is the least of UK researchers’ worries

As Brexit reaches fever pitch, who knows what damage the 2028 research excellence framework might reveal

February 7, 2019
Man crosses bridge with Union Jack umbrella as snow falls
Source: Alamy

Coming in a week when teeth-gnashing over the UK’s handling of Brexit reached fever pitch, the beginning of the dreaded REF season may well have felt like the least of the storm clouds looming over the UK research community.

Indeed, the publication of the final guidance and criteria for the 2021 research excellence framework last week might even have provoked a nostalgic sigh for a time when the only impediment to the continuing improvement of UK research was the bureaucratic burden of proving it to politicians.

As Jan Palmowski notes in our lead opinion piece this week, Brexit is already causing considerable harm due to European researchers’ wariness about partnering in EU-funded projects with a nation that might be about to crash out of the bloc with no deal.

That damage won’t show up before the REF submission deadline in November 2020. However, it is easy to wonder how the number of submissions deemed “world leading” will compare in the following REF, likely to be in 2028. If the new-look REF lives up to the promise of presenting a more accurate picture of UK research strength than previous iterations then only grade inflation may save the UK’s blushes.

That promise is based on the move away from selection to requiring universities to submit all their active researchers. The hope is that this will end previous shady practice, whereby certain universities sought to maximise their quality scores by submitting highly restricted samples.

The devil is in the detail of how active researchers are identified, of course. The funding bodies that oversee the REF have accepted that contractual status won’t cut it since some people on “teaching and research” contracts focus on knowledge exchange or professional practice. The use of contractual status also raised the fear that universities would simply get around the new rules by moving those they don’t want to submit on to teaching-only contracts. As a recent opinion piece in Times Higher Education made clear, some departments have already gone down this route (“The REF games are even more brutal this time around”, 3 January).

However, many will fear that allowing universities to define “research active” in their own ways instead may open the door even wider to game-playing, and the funding bodies have felt the need to “reiterate that this should be a process of identifying staff with significant responsibility, not of selecting those staff to be submitted”.

Indeed, much of the funding bodies’ commentary on the finalised REF guidance revolves around the need to close off opportunities to game-play. For instance, the proposed ban on submitting the outputs of those who have been made redundant has been overturned after consultation respondents pointed out that early career researchers on fixed-term contracts would also be covered by it, which could “disincentivise institutions from employing these individuals” – while any exception for fixed-term contracts could “provide an incentive” to move staff on to them, and “increase the precariousness of academic employment”.

However, the funding bodies recognise that removing the ban “may itself have unintended consequences for individuals” because it dilutes the incentive for universities to retain staff. This point was strongly echoed by many dismayed academics when the decision was announced. In response, universities are “encouraged” to “reflect” on whether their policy on submitting former staff is “compatible” with the funding bodies’ intention “to recognise the investment made by institutions [in people] and reduce game-playing”.

The bodies have also offered more clarity on how interdisciplinary submissions will be handled. This is an important issue in an era in which, as our cover feature on chemistry makes clear, the boundaries between traditional disciplines are becoming ever more fluid. It remains to be seen whether more departments this time around will be brave enough to test the assertion that such research (which can now be specifically flagged) will not be disadvantaged in the assessment process. But it is clear that if the UK is to minimise the post-Brexit damage to its research base, it needs to get interdisciplinarity right.

It also needs to make the country’s world-leading researchers feel highly valued. This is not merely a case of releasing statements reminding unsettled EU staff how much they contribute. It is also about living up to the aspiration expressed by the former universities and science minister David Willetts in 2012 to make the UK the “best place in the world to do science”. Enjoyable working environments must surely be at the heart of that.

In that regard, it seems a shame that the funding bodies have to work so hard to close down every conceivable invitation to bad practice that the REF rules might introduce. It might be hoped that university managers would be in less of a hurry to put university reputation above individual well-being than politicians are to put party electoral advantage over the national interest. But history suggests that the bodies are acting wisely. And, as all academics but too few politicians acknowledge, the lessons of history should always be foremost in our thinking.


Print headline: UK research: game over?

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