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Research Assessment: By the people for the people

  • 13 May 2022
  • By Rory Duncan

This post is part of a series of blogs reflecting on the REF. The full list of blogs in the series can be found here.

This blog was written by Professor Rory Duncan, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Sheffield Hallam University. Rory is on Twitter @ProfRoryDuncan.

The publication of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) outcomes is an eagerly awaited event in the UK higher education and research calendars, whatever people’s views are on the value of the exercise. Coming round as it does every few years (many will feel the preparations are never ending), it provides insight and evidence into how well individual institutions, and the higher education sector as a whole, are improving their research endeavour, developing their facilities and supporting their people.

Research is, of course, all about people. Huge effort across the higher education sector and the whole research and innovation system goes into each REF submission, gathering information and outputs, evidencing impacts and collaborations, ensuring compliance with the regulations, drafting narratives and explaining ‘why’ to sometimes grumpy, always busy colleagues. This relies on expert teams of people and might sometimes feel rather thankless at the time – so I add my personal thanks to all those I have worked with over the years in different organisations who make it work. 

I can hear a response to this that says, among other things, ‘why do government, funders and universities make this such an industry?’ There is no doubt work is needed to root out unnecessary bureaucracy in the system and an independent review will report shortly on that, doubtless with recommendations for policymakers, funders and research organisations. One question in the Future Research Assessment Programme consultation is around a rolling process and that strikes me as something worth exploring carefully to break out of the ‘big bang’ nature of the current REF and to provide continuous data and evidence. Data science and innovation moves so fast that every time a REF comes around, the techniques for mining information have improved radically. There must be opportunities for both having a balance of more continuous assessment and reducing the effort required to capture the information we need.

Whatever comes next, evaluation of what works is important. Research requires investment because it transforms almost every aspect of society, improving quality of life for us all in so many ways. Funders are charged with stewarding the investment of lots of public money – taxes that you and I, as well as the majority of people who will never read this blog pay – and it’s only right that we try as best as we can to understand the difference it’s making, and to use this in shaping national and local priorities. Bureaucracy aside for now, assessing research is essential and has been a game-changer in demonstrating to governments just how valuable investing in research is, and increasingly, to wider audiences too, including some people who are (apparently) ‘difficult to reach’, by articulating, celebrating and understanding its impact. 

The importance of understanding the relative quality and impact of research doesn’t stop at funding bodies. Universities, as major organisations conducting publicly funded research, make choices to invest their resources and hard-won money in research and innovation. Universities are not simply contractors, they also have a stake in research themselves and need to make deliberate decisions in how and where to support research, the people engaged in it, and so benefit from knowing what has worked well and, equally, what hasn’t. 

Staying with the topic of people, we need lots more talented, skilled individuals to want to dedicate parts or all of their careers to research and innovation, in whatever form that might take. Some of the air of mystery surrounding the future of research policy has been dispelled with the publication of different plans: the R&D Roadmapthe R&D People and Culture Strategythe UK Innovation Strategy; and the UKRI Strategy to name a few. All set out descriptions of what will happen in coming years and why. The People & Culture Strategy has some big numbers in it – something like 400,000 additional people are required in all parts of the system, contributing in all sorts of ways, to approach where we need to be. 

The People & Culture strategy and the R&D Roadmap don’t shy away from the challenges: research careers in the broadest sense may not be as fun, attractive or accessible as they could be for lots of systemic and structural reasons, and we all need concerted, collective effort to change that for the better. Some of the structural issues are because of years of successive policies that (largely inadvertently) incentivised the valuing of a narrow set of outputs. The future research assessment programme can be a major tool for positive change in this, learning from what worked or didn’t this time round and giving thought to where we want to be.

Parts of the university sector can seem rather closed, meaning it’s difficult for people from other sectors to contribute, or for people who have learned new skills elsewhere, or experienced different organisational cultures or ways of working, to return. The perception that the REF rewards a narrow set of ‘traditional’ academic outputs maintains this position, because people who have ‘left’ may not have published academic papers, for example. Creating a much more porous university is therefore important, for many reasons, including in diversity, leadership and culture, and the next REF can be an important lever in this. Even in my short time at Sheffield Hallam University, I have been struck by the important role of practitioners in contributing to professional training in universities, as well as the value of placements and secondments for staff and students in opening cultures and experiences and demonstrating the value, contribution and impact of the University to those around it.

The signs are positive, and actions are aligning: just the publication of a document like the People & Culture Strategy and the recognition from the highest places that change is essential is a positive, in my view. The introduction of narrative CVs by several funders, whilst not a panacea, is a positive, nudging towards recognising a breadth of contributions and people beyond the traditional view. Already, universities are thinking about alternative uses for narrative CVs in recruitment, promotions processes and so on, to highlight that the widest contribution is important, not just a narrow part of the possibilities. This should be encouraged, and findings and approaches should be shared openly.

Universities are a force for good, and key in enabling social mobility. If we are to increase the impact research provides us with, as I believe we should, we need a much greater diversity of people. The largest pool of talent includes the people who haven’t yet had the opportunity to develop and show what they’re capable of, and we need to make sure that they aren’t excluded or discouraged. One metric I will be interested in as the story of this REF unfolds is the diversity of people across the system and in different universities and disciplines. 

Many actors and activities in the system can help make all this work and the next REF can incentivise and reward organisations to do so. I hope sincerely that the future assessment will place a much stronger emphasis on what I believe is inarguably the most important output – developing diverse people and teams, who in turn, develop and inspire others.

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