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The Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel (EDAP) report concluded that more fundamental changes to nomination and selection processes would be needed to improve the representativeness of Research Excellence Framework (REF) panels significantly. It also recommended that all those involved in nominating and selecting panel members should exercise a shared responsibility to advance equality and diversity (E&D).

So here we are in March 2017, with the next REF starting to loom large. How are we going to ensure greater advances in panel representativeness in REF 2021?

The funding bodies’ consultation document on the next REF has outlined a number of measures to improve representativeness, including unconscious bias training for the selection panels for main and sub-panel chairs, and collecting demographic information from all applicants to enable monitoring. Nominees for wider membership will also be asked to provide demographic information, and main and sub-panel chairs will receive E&D briefing and unconscious bias training.

The consultation document also suggests that, if the funding bodies follow the nomination approach used in REF 2014, nominating bodies could be asked to complete a structured form on, for instance, the E&D characteristics of their membership and how E&D was taken into account when selecting nominees. In addition, EDAP recommended that nominating bodies should be provided with information on the representativeness of panel membership in 2014.

These are all sensible suggestions, but will they be sufficient to deliver the much needed increase in representativeness?

The consultation document also seeks views on whether moving to an open nominations process would increase representativeness, while noting the increased burden and the potential delay to the overall timeframe for recruitment.

Putting these important practical considerations aside, would moving to an open nomination process help? My view is probably not.

There is good evidence that people from certain groups, for example women, are much less likely to put themselves forward for new jobs, promotions and so on, so why expect them to rush to put themselves forward for REF panel membership? Also, the suggestion in the consultation report that such nominations would need to be endorsed by the relevant subject community might deter them even more.

So what else could be done?

Could the ‘monitoring’ data collected from the nominees actually be used in the selection process in some way? Could this be an allowable positive action?

As a former sub-panel chair, I recognise the difficulties that chairs face in assembling a panel from the given nominees that appropriately covers the range of sub-disciplines and methodologies, the different types of institution and their geographical locations. But maybe the E&D characteristics of the suggested panel could be checked before finalising the membership, so adjustments could be made where warranted and feasible.

A more radical approach would be to set quotas or targets. Unlike some other countries, public bodies in the UK have not adopted any form of quota-setting approach to selection.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of this, it seems clear that a process that involved panel chairs having to meet firm quotas for, say, women when selecting panel members, is unlikely to work given all the other constraints on the selection process.

But what about targets? Could panel chairs be given recommended targets based on the make-up of the pool of people from which the nominees have been drawn?

They could then be asked to work towards these and to account for themselves if they are not able to meet, or come close to, the recommended targets.

Are we ready as a sector to take this more radical step? My view is that we should at least seriously consider it.

Enhancing panel representativeness is just one of the issues that the new Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel will be addressing following the closure of the current consultation later this month. EDAP will be looking at other considerations such as the equalities guidance for main and sub-panels, guidance to institutions on codes of practice and equality impact assessments, and how best to support and promote E&D through the assessment of the research environment and impact.

The consultation remains open until noon on Friday 17 March, so there is still time for you to give your views about how best to support and promote E&D through REF.

The Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel has been established to advise the UK higher education funding bodies, the REF team and the REF panels on the implementation of equality measures in the REF. It is intended to demonstrate the funding bodies’ commitment to equality and diversity in the research careers.

Professor Dianne Berry OBE is Chair of the panel.