In the last REF exercise, in my capacity as a user of UK academic research, I agreed to serve on one of the four main panels overseeing the peer-review assessment process – Main Panel A, for medicine, health and life sciences.
I am a generalist rather than a subject matter expert but I have interacted, over many years, with most UK universities – GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has more academic collaborations than any other UK head-quartered company.
I was the only industrial representative on the panel; there were also users from the charity sector as well as a strong representation of academics from overseas. I went into the exercise not really knowing what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised by the level of rigour and fairness throughout the panel.
My role as Director of Academic Liaison at GSK gives me ample opportunity to benchmark academic impacts across a number of countries. GSK scientists access the best science from all over the world but we have a disproportionately high level of collaborations in the UK. This is for two main reasons: firstly, the UK science base is strong; secondly, the UK funders have a pragmatic approach to working with industry to co-fund science.
Working on the panel, it was very interesting for me to see the change in attitude of the academic panellists to the REF impact case studies as we went through the exercise. Initially there was a great deal of apprehension among both the main panel and sub-panel members regarding the diversity of the impact case studies and they were concerned about how they were going to score them. The academics were very used to evaluating research outputs in the form of published papers, as they had assessed outputs in previous Research Assessment Exercises; but this was the first time that they had been asked to evaluate impact case studies. There was a great deal of nervousness in the ranks. However, I think most would agree that, once they got stuck into the evaluation, it was not as difficult to assess the case studies as they initially thought. I would go as far as to say that I actually enjoyed reading these four-page examples and I certainly learnt a great deal from the exercise.
From my perspective, the REF impact agenda, coupled with the Research Councils’ “Pathways to Impact” agenda, have done more to change the culture in academia than anything that has gone before. There are academics now considering active engagement with industry who, frankly, ten years ago, would not have considered industrial collaborations.
Being driven by the REF, the academics – some perhaps having broken the ice and engaged with industry for the very first time – now realise that industrial scientists do some excellent science in industry; and further, that the industrial engagement often catalyses their own academic research. At the very least, engagement with industry will give the academics some new scientific challenges that they might wish to consider. Industry does not want academics to undertake routine industrial-scale research – we can do that ourselves – but we do want the academics to apply their lateral thinking to some of the challenges in the industry.
In the REF 2014 exercise there were almost 7,000 impact case studies submitted by the 154 UK universities assessed. The Dowling Review undertook an analysis of the companies cited in impact case studies and found that fifteen out of the top 40 cited businesses were pharmaceutical companies. This is not surprising as the ‘pharma’ R&D spend of £4.2 billion per year dwarfs other sectors. I was pleased to see GSK at the top of the list of cited companies, featuring in 152 case studies – 40 more than the next company, Rolls Royce.
I have just put my name forward to serve on Main Panel A for a second time. I am prepared to put my time into the REF as I think that it is important that all researchers consider the potential impact of their research. As a taxpayer I want to know that the research funding is likely to have some utility, and that the academic has at least considered whether their research may have some impact. From a personal perspective I see this as an opportunity to learn what a difference the universities are making, through their impact case studies.
Finally, one of the international members of my panel in 2014 said that “the UK would be the envy of the world if it got the REF impact agenda right.” It is my belief that we have got it right, and that the REF and its predecessor Research Assessment Exercises have driven up research standards in the UK. This will be increasingly important to the nation as other countries’ research bases endeavour to learn from impact in the UK.
The REF team is inviting nominations for panel members. The closing date is 20 December 2017.