Building on the benefits of REF

When designing the second REF we should note where REF 2014 has enhanced the research environment in the UK, and helped our universities strengthen their position internationally.

We can see it in field-weighted citation indices, world university rankings, flows of foreign direct investment into the UK for research, grants won from the European Research Council, and the general dynamism of research in UK universities at all levels.

But most tellingly we can see it when we look at outcomes, and here the impact element of REF has helped us articulate just what excellent research can deliver.

From our own sample of impact case studies from Russell Group universities in REF 2014 we found:

  • £21 billion of wider economic benefits
  • 100x return on initial investment over a number of years
  • 4,300 new jobs created from new businesses.

Even more important was the range of different impacts delivered – from stimulating public engagement with theoretical physics, to enhancing and preserving our cultural heritage. As many as half of our case studies showed direct economic impact through new technologies, products and services. In reality, it was much more than that when we factor in health, environmental and other improvements.

Many of our case studies showed that research at our universities is delivering much of what the Government will want from its new Industrial Strategy.

Radical change in the system could risk damaging that, but incremental improvement would still be advantageous.

Designing the second REF as evolutionary change

When designing the new REF we must never forget that the focus on ‘excellence’ is key.

We welcome the proposal to maintain an overall continuity of approach with REF 2014, in particular by keeping the outputs, impact and environment structure and ensuring peer review stays at the heart of the exercise.

By maintaining the broad structure of the REF, and broadly similar rules, universities should be able to draw on their experience of REF 2014. Similarly, the team running the REF will also be able to draw more readily on previous experience. This will help deliver efficiencies on both sides.

On impact – we would strongly support allowing institutions to re-submit REF 2014 case studies where subsequent impact can be demonstrated.

Allowing some recognition of research impact on teaching may also be helpful in demonstrating the value of research-led teaching.

On environment – metrics could be used much more extensively and successfully here and this whole section could be simplified radically.

I think it is also helpful to see more consideration of research excellence at the institutional level alongside the UoA-level. An institutional-level environment statement could help to reduce burden by allowing universities to demonstrate institutional strategy, critical mass of research excellence and key interdisciplinary links across the institution all in one place, rather than repeating this for each UoA.

But there are a number of key issues for debate. There are pros and cons with 100 per cent submission, for example, and how this marries with keeping overall burdens down. The proposal to auto-allocate researchers to UoAs based on HESA cost centres will find few supporters.

And will the second REF genuinely recognise and reward the very highest levels of research excellence when differentiation at the top end is becoming more difficult?

It looks like we’ll see a lot of debate around the proposed non-portability of research outputs. There  are particular concerns about impacts on certain groups, for example on early career researchers and the flow of international talent. At the very least, an exemption, or other form of recognition, will be essential for them.

From my wider experience in research and innovation, I know that the vibrancy and dynamism of higher education and research depends on the mobility of people. We need this to maintain a high-quality research ecosystem in the UK, so this must be taken into account in the final decision.

Nothing happens in isolation

There is of course much more going on in the higher education and research space than just the consultation on the second REF.  We should acknowledge this when thinking about what can or should be done this time round.

Four issues at the top of my mind are Brexit, the HE and Research Bill, TEF, and our future visas and immigration policy. These will bring changes to the research funding structures and the regulatory landscape for universities. There is certainly the prospect of increased burden on universities, in particular if the second REF and a future subject-level TEF coincide. And our ability to collaborate with partners from the EU and to attract and retain the best talent from around the world must not be put in jeopardy as the country moves towards and beyond Brexit.

Looking to the future

With the future in many ways looking different to what has gone before, the prospects for research funding at least look bright (assuming there is also a sensible settlement for science and research in the upcoming Brexit negotiations).

We are promised an inflation-adjusted baseline for science and research, additional money for biomedical catalysts and tech transfer and a very welcome £4.7 billion boost over the next four financial years from the 2016 Autumn Statement.

If you run the numbers, this delivers close to £2.5 billion a year extra for research in time for the next REF results and the QR allocation that follows – altogether a very interesting prospect when we take the new ‘balanced funding principle’ into consideration from the HE and Research Bill.