We need to understand the diversity of research to properly assess it

The consultation on the second REF was launched in December 2016, and over the last month we have been travelling far and wide to hear views and discuss the proposals.

Why? All in all, we want to develop a framework with input from across the research community and which reflects Lord Stern’s principles. We want to address some of the key issues raised about previous exercises. We also want a framework which continues to meet our key purposes for assessing research: informing funding allocations, and providing accountability and reputational yardsticks.

We held five consultation events around the UK, two in London and one each in Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol. The events set out our proposals in the context of the Stern Review. But primarily we wanted to encourage a frank and open discussion among delegates to shine a light on common issues and areas of difference.

We hope, through the consultation events, we have managed to portray the genuinely open nature of this consultation and the need for responses to address the challenges and benefits of the proposals for implementation – but also for responses to offer alternatives and constructively tell us where the sector’s priorities sit.

Throughout the events, we have heard similar messages begin to emerge – not always with complete consensus and often nuanced.

HESA data

We have, for example, heard a lot about the use of HESA data. The consultation proposes to define ‘research-active’ staff using the employment function of academic staff, as returned to HESA according to staff contracts. It also proposes to allocate research-active staff to Units of Assessment by mapping them to HESA cost centres (HESA-defined groupings to delineate where activity takes place within institutions).

Some could see the benefits of a process which uses existing data. But many have fundamental concerns about using the data in this way.

How far contracts accurately reflect research activity varies. Many staff on teaching and research contracts focus on knowledge exchange activity or professional practice. Staff are also allocated to HESA cost centres for different purposes. These often reflect the structure of teaching at an institution, rather than research.

Points of tension

In working through discussions, groups at the events have also reflected on other areas of tension.

Will submitting all staff relieve the burden of managing the exercise? Or will it simply shift it to output selection? Is returning research for assessment by using the disciplinary structures of HESA cost centres the best way to present interdisciplinary research?

A number of discussions have questioned what ‘problem’ Lord Stern’s recommendations are trying to solve. But it is important to remember that Lord Stern’s report was informed by a call for evidence to the sector. So the recommendations address some of the key issues raised by the academic community about burden of management, ‘playing the system’, and the impact of non-inclusion in the REF on individual researchers.

In considering these and further questions at the events, delegates have reflected on the different ways that proposals will affect types of institution, groups of staff and discipline areas – and it is important that we understand the range and intensity of these different effects through this consultation process.

Keeping the conversation going

Our engagement activity does not end with the five formal consultation events. We want to keep the conversation going. The REF team and other funding body representatives are continuing to meet with a range of groups, from subject associations and the academies, to mission groups and sector bodies.

We’ll also publish a series of blog posts – both from the REF team, but perhaps more importantly, from guest authors in the sector with a range of perspectives.

The higher education sector is diverse and varied. The next REF must recognise this range, both of university and research types.

It is, after all, the foundation on which the UK research base is built.