REF impact weighting should be 25 per cent, says Witty

Impact should be given a weighting of 25 per cent at the next research excellence framework, the author of a government-commissioned review has said

October 15, 2013

Sir Andrew Witty, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, said the introduction of impact in the forthcoming REF provided “a different sort of incentive to translate research insights into benefits for local businesses”.

Earlier this year the government commissioned Sir Andrew, who is also the chancellor of the University of Nottingham, to examine how universities can better support economic growth and drive exports.

His report, published on 15 October, said there should be “a presumption” of increase in the weighting for impact evidence to 25 per cent in the next REF in 2020, subject to evaluation of the current system.

However, the report is light on why the move would have the desired effect.

According to Encouraging a British Invention Revolution, the UK is a world leader in technology and inventions, but needs to simplify complex funding streams and charge universities with a greater role in delivering economic growth.

It recommends that the government commit to spending £1 billion over the next parliament on “Arrow Projects”, joint ventures in clusters between universities and business, including Local Enterprise Partnerships.

“The Arrows should provide full support to the invention at the ‘Tip’ and should be uninhibited by Institutional status, geography or source of funding,” says Sir Andrew in the report’s foreword.

“Government should put its weight behind creating global scale through encouragement of real collaboration in fields in which we can win,” he adds.

Funding could be new or come from existing sources, says the report.

Other proposals in the report include increasing funding for the Higher Education Innovation Fund from £160 million to £250 million a year, with the allocation method “sharpened” to incentivise engagement with SMEs.

Universities should also put in place a single point of entry for small- and medium-sized enterprises that “triages” their needs and directs them to the relevant part of the university, it adds.

The report also recommends that ministers write to the chairs of all LEPs with universities in their areas setting out the expectation that they should have a university presence on the board.

A theme running through the report is that funding should flow by technology or industry, not geographical location.

“We should embrace the country’s density of population and institutions and drive greater collaboration wherever the ‘idea flows’ – eliminating unnecessary regional barriers which create domestic competition instead of marshalling our resources to run a global race,” it reads.

Sir Andrew told Times Higher Education that in creating the report he had found a desire within universities to “lean forward into economic value creation agenda”.

He added that he was confident the vision outlined in his report would be realistic, because there was little he had needed to “dream and invent”, with many ideas already working around the country, despite not having been encouraged.

“We know it works, it’s just a case of trying to find a mechanism to encourage more and more people to do it,” he added.

John Cridland, director-general of the CBI, called the report “insightful” and praised both the plan to establish a funding stream to support arrow projects and university “triages”.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the future of the UK economy depended upon making the most of the knowledge, innovation and energy to be found in universities.

“This work is already happening but the report challenges us, quite rightly, to do more, and outlines several significant ways in which this might be made to happen,” she said.

Universities and science minister David Willetts added: “We know that universities are engines of innovation and have an important role to play in driving our industrial strategy.

“We are already making strides to help commercialise the work done by universities under the ‘eight great technologies’, which will help this country accelerate ahead in the global race. We will now consider the recommendations and respond more fully in time.”

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Reader's comments (2)

As John Milner says, industry "historically has done both research and development". It also did "blue skies" research. Sometimes at a level superior to anything that went on in universities. (Think ICI, Marconi and IBM.) Not only has industry pulled out of blue-skies research, it does less applied research than it did back then, leaving it focussed on development. Many companies rarely look more than a few years ahead when it comes to R&D. This means that industry now, more than ever, needs universities to do both blue-skies research and "pre-competitive" applied research. It is for the paymasters to decide on the balance between "pure and applied". If taxpayers are shovelling money into research, then it seems reasonable to expect that research to have impact. Academics who do not want to play that game, can find other ways to support their work. Remember, government support for academic research started as a wartime phenomenon. On impact, it should not be beyond the wit of researchers to present their research in a way that demonstrates the impact of even the bluest of blue skies research. Sadly, some of the impact statements I have seen do a or job of explaining the impact of excellent research that has undeniably benefited industry and the other "customers" for research. Sprinkling the I word throughout a submission is not evidence of impact. (Actually, I advocate excising the word wherever possible, especially when used as a verb.) Nor does throwing in yet more academic references. There is still time, just, for universities to hire someone to cast a critical editorial eye over their submissions. Many have already gone down this road.
"There is still time, just, for universities to hire someone to cast a critical editorial eye over their submissions." Is the proposal that the tax-payer should be paying someone to explain what it is that the university department is doing (i.e. more support for administrators and less for teaching and research?) Apologies if I misunderstood. Also, in my view, public support for universities should be in order to protect these institutions from political and economical control; the suggestion that the "paymasters" (where did they get their "money" from, I wonder) should control the direction of academic research would imply that they know better than the academics in charge. If that is the case - they can go ahead without paying universities. If that is not the case - they should realise that too much interference can be very harmful. I am with Paul Nurse on this one (but I wish I could see more evidence at the top of generating policy accordingly...):