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Former Vice-Chancellor calls for major rethink on assessing research

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In a new HEPI Policy Note, REF2028: Outputs Matter, Professor Sir Nigel Thrift, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick, argues the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is becoming overloaded – thereby diluting its core purpose.

Professor Thrift argues:

  • The REF allows research institutions to show government they are doing excellent research that deserves to be rewarded with taxpayers’ money and in return a special pot of strategic institutional funding is allocated on a formula with few strings. This money is called QR (quality-related) funding because it is concerned with assessing the quality of research put forward by each institution.
  • But as more things have been loaded on to the REF, its central purpose is being lost. The proposals for the latest version of the REF, due in 2028, argue for a substantial cut in the percentage of the exercise given over to qualitative assessment of research outputs via peer review.
  • Research outputs are the lifeblood of university research, prompting leaps forward in science, medicine and engineering and serving as the basis of world-changing innovations. In the humanities and social sciences, new maps of how societies come together and fall apart, and of how new meanings evolve, see the light of day, as well as policies of all kinds. Without full peer-reviewed consideration of what the authors of these outputs consider to be their best work, it is difficult to understand how government can have confidence in the quality of British research.

Academics’ actual contributions to knowledge are being devalued in favour of bureaucratic imperatives that may be important but cannot be allowed to sideline why the REF exists. Moreover, it is not clear how government will in future be able to gain assurance that taxpayer money is being well spent.

This HEPI Policy Note paper outlines why the main concern of the REF has been lost sight of as well as some ways of bringing it back into focus. The causes include:

  • a dangerous tendency to believe that ‘team science’ is the be-all and end-all – what was an observation about modern science is in danger of becoming an all-encompassing ideology that is being imposed on areas of research for which it is not appropriate;
  • the downgrading of individual academic contributions, even though large parts of academia do not run on a teams model; and
  • mission creep, meaning the main research funding body, UKRI, is increasingly taking on the mantle of a regulator, one apparently able to tell some of the leading universities in the world how to do research.

Professor Sir Nigel Thrift, the author of the new report, said:

‘Is it really wise for the main research funding body in a small country with such a large international research reputation, based mainly on demonstrating the high standards of its research outputs and the academics who produce them, to seemingly downplay their importance?

‘There is a danger that the Government will become less enthusiastic about research investment when the Research Excellence Framework’s primary purpose – rewarding outputs – is devalued. One of the main lines of defence for the research carried out by British universities will have been removed as will one of the main arguments for increased investment.

‘I fear the new REF could mark the beginning of a long goodbye to notions of research excellence which we so badly need to keep hold of.’

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

‘The Future Research Assessment Programme was announced by the then Minister for Science and Research, Amanda Solloway MP, at a HEPI Conference in 2020. Since, then HEPI has contributed to the debate on what research assessment should look like in future, including through a detailed collection of essays published last year. Now, we are adding to this lively and important conversation by publishing the thoughts of an experienced and well-respected former Vice-Chancellor.

‘It is a crucial debate to be having, as Britain’s place as a Science Superpower depends above all on having the right research environment in place. Exactly what that should look like and whether it is best encouraged by measuring outputs above all else are the sorts of questions on which wise heads may differ, but they do need to be openly and urgently discussed.’

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