Stuck in the middle

How do you solve a problem like REF selection? Research-active status may be defined by formal or informal means, but is there a realistic alternative?

March 23, 2017
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One of the many bad things about 2016 was the incessant cry that it was the worst year in history.

There were undoubtedly seismic shocks – namely Brexit and Trump – but it was celebrity deaths that people leaped on most eagerly, rushing to Twitter to utter some banality such as: “Damn you, 2016”.

Needless to say, middle-aged celebrities popping their clogs had nothing to do with the Gregorian calendar, but the idea that a year can be particularly unkind appeals to our way of thinking.

Cast your mind back to 2014. This was the year of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which we revisit in our cover story this week to try to distil the lessons for universities and researchers. It was also the year that the Malaysian airliner MH370 vanished, that Isis declared an Islamic caliphate, and Russia annexed Crimea.

Perhaps the most personally scarring event of 2014 for many in UK universities, though, was the research excellence framework.

It is now 2017. What this means is that we are already approaching the halfway mark of the current REF period, and last week marked the end of the consultation on how REF 2021 should work. As ever, one of the most contentious issues is who should be submitted, with views varying from “everyone” to “no one” (a proposal made last week by Dame Ottoline Leyser, chair of the Royal Society Science Policy Advisory Group).

In practice, the aim of both ideas is the same: to stop the game-playing that has plagued the REF by putting the focus on the institution rather than on individual researchers, to reduce the time and cost of selection, and to address the morale-sapping nature of the whole process.

Dame Ottoline’s idea, set out in Research Fortnight, is as follows: “No researchers should be submitted to the REF. None. All that is needed is a measure of research volume, to determine how many outputs should be submitted in each subject area and to calculate the size of the block grant.”

In another blog published last week, David Sweeney, REF supremo at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, mulled over one of the key obstacles to including all research-active staff: how to define who is and is not research active.

The use of contractual status is problematic, he points out, because contracts are often formulaic. In Scotland, for example, pretty much everyone is on a teaching and research contract, regardless of what they actually do.

The key bit of Sweeney’s blog is this: “We recognise that staff selection has been an issue which provokes tension between staff member and employer. So we do wonder if we could look to a solution based first on an evidence-based definition (perhaps agreed sector-wide), and then agreement between the university and the academic about a status of ‘research-active’.”

The first thing that would need to be done would be to clarify what an “evidence-based definition” of an academic who should be submitted to REF 2021 actually looks like.

The second would be to fundamentally change, or more realistically inhibit, the instinct of university managers to do whatever they can to continue exploiting loopholes and gaming the system. The stakes are so high that any opportunity to do so will inevitably be taken by some, if not by all.

The question with the REF has always been one of how much blood managers are willing to leave on the carpet to maximise their return, and the answer has often been bucketloads.

A consensual, evidence-based approach to defining research-active status, which is sympathetically applied in an institutional context, sounds ideal. But would you trust your lot to play by those rules unless they were enforced? Some of you would. Others would not.

As James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, pointed out in response to Dame Ottoline’s suggestion, “rightly or wrongly [many institutions] want to use [the] REF as part of performance management”. Changing that culture, which has become integral to UK higher education, is a hell of a job. There are two obvious ways to determine REF selection: contracts, or a chat in the head of department’s office. Finding a third way may be the answer we need, but it’s not at all clear that we’ll get there in time to make 2021 the year of peace and love.

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