The Royal Society is very fond of pointing out that it had a Foreign Secretary some 60 years before the UK Government did. While it is perhaps a little disingenuous to suggest that international engagement is linked to a particular job title, the observation does serve to emphasise that an international outlook has long been part of the fabric of research.
Research is now a truly global endeavour, and evidence points to international collaboration and openness being a feature of a high performing research system. The UK’s research system is well placed in this regard. According to the most recent analysis of the UK system, more than half of journal articles with a UK-resident author also include an author resident outside the UK, and it is these articles that contribute to the high performance of the UK against citation metrics. This pattern is replicated in many other leading research nations; as Jonathan Adams and Karen Gurney have pointed out, comparisons of national research performance are becoming meaningless.
The internationalisation of research also means that when we make comparisons within national systems, it needs to be done in the context of international standards and norms. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) and its predecessor exercises have always recognised this, with criteria that are clearly linked to international benchmarks: world-leading, internationally excellent, and internationally recognised. Most, if not all, national research evaluation systems follow a similar practice. For example, Excellence for Research in Australia also has criteria related to international standards.
For the REF, it is essential that we draw international expertise into the review process. Involving international experts both in developing the discipline-specific criteria, and in overseeing the process of assessment themselves, provides assurance that the international benchmarks are being appropriately interpreted. For example, in the 2014 REF the international members of Main Panel A (MPA) contributed a section to the panel overview report, which stated:
‘The strongly favourable evaluation of output in this REF exercise accurately reflects the high international standard of research in the UK covered by MPA. Recognition of this excellence can be seen across the world.’
As well as being important for the process of the REF, international members of REF panels are also able to benefit the research systems from which they come. They gain an in-depth understanding of the UK’s research within their discipline, gain insights into the REF approach to assessment with its strengths and weaknesses, and can contribute to appropriate benchmarking elsewhere.
Nominations are currently open for recruitment of panel members, including international members, for REF 2021. We strongly encourage nominators to identify and put forward international experts for these vital roles.