The REF is a process of expert review that will be carried out by 34 sub-panels, working under the guidance of four main panels. The expert panels are made up of senior academics, international members, and research users, who are appointed through a nominations process.

During the last REF exercise in 2014, an analysis found that some groups, such as women, those from some ethnic minorities, and disabled people, remained under-represented on the panels compared with ratios in the academic population – although some progress had been made since the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.

In 2014 we weren’t able to compare the appointed members with the nominations pool, as monitoring data wasn’t collected for nominated individuals. However, wider evidence suggests that barriers exist for under-represented groups at multiple stages of selection processes.

For REF 2021, so we can understand more about any potential barriers and further improve how representative the panels are, we have introduced some new measures into the recruitment process – at both the nomination and appointment stages.

What do nominating bodies need to do?

All associations or organisations wishing to submit nominations for REF panel membership will need to state how equality and diversity issues were taken into account in putting forward nominations.

We have provided some guidance for nominating bodies, to support them in taking account of these issues in their internal nominations processes, and a template to help them submit information about equality and diversity when making their nominations.

However, as this is a new feature of the nominations process, let us reflect a bit further on this requirement and its intention.

The aim is to raise awareness of any potential barriers or issues in the nominations process, to encourage nominating bodies to look at how these could be addressed, and so to help achieve a diverse set of nominations.

There are many types of bodies with an interest in nominating panellists, and we recognise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ process for identifying nominees. Some academic associations with a wide remit may nominate many people for multiple panels and roles, whereas other organisations, such as small charities or companies with a specific research interest, may only want to nominate one or two. So it is appropriate that each body’s considerations are tailored to the nature and scale of the nominations process they will be following.

If you are submitting on behalf of a nominating body, you will need to complete a template giving information on how equality and diversity were addressed in your selection process. In doing this, we would like you to reflect on the process you used to elicit nominations and, if many nominations were received, how you chose the ones you are recommending for the REF panels.  We encourage you to consider for example how transparent the process was, who was involved, whether they looked at the diversity of the pool of nominations and took any action needed, and whether any attempts were made to reach out to typically under-represented groups.

To help nominating bodies reflect on the diversity of their pool of potential nominees, we have provided contextual data on the REF website relating to higher education staff in the UK, split by age, gender, ethnicity and disability. It may also be useful to look back at the report on panel representativeness from REF2014.

How will the information be used?

The REF Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel (EDAP) will review the information received, to identify areas of good practice and lessons learned. This will feed into a report, which will further inform nominating bodies, before a second call for nominations is launched later in the exercise (for the assessment year, 2021).

The wider picture

This new requirement is just one of several measures that have been introduced to increase the representativeness of panel members.

We’ll be collecting monitoring data from all nominees – as well as applicants for chair positions – which will better allow us to identify whether there are greater barriers at particular stages of the appointment process. We are also providing unconscious bias training to those panellists involved in selection decisions, and with the EDAP’s advice will consider the arguments for extending this across the panel membership.

With all these measures, the UK funding bodies are demonstrating they are committed to making sure the REF panels are as representative as possible of the academic population.

Visit the REF 2021 website for more information on the Research Excellence Framework

Kim Hackett is REF Manager, HEFCE

Professor Dianne Berry OBE, is Dean of Postgraduate Research Studies at Reading University and Chair of REF Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel