The UK’s funding councils are right to consider broadening how ‘impact’ from academic research is assessed in the Research Excellence Framework (REF). They should also strongly consider developing a ‘sampling approach’ to complement their proposed model for submitting all research-active staff.
These suggestions are among the answers put forward by the Council for Mathematical Sciences (CMS – which represents the main UK mathematical societies including the RSS) in their submitted response to a consultation looking at how the next REF could be improved.
The REF, which is next scheduled to take place in 2021, is an exercise conducted periodically by the four higher education funding councils. It is intended to assess the quality of research in higher education institutions. As the REF is one of the factors involved in assessing how much research funding universities receive, much is at stake for those involved.
In their consultation, the funding councils set out proposals for continuity and change in the exercise, responding in part to an independent Review of the REF that was completed by Lord Stern last year (in the Stern Review).
The Stern Review recommended that REF assessment should continue to be based on peer review, and the CMS welcomes the proposed continuation of this.
To address recommendations to reduce ‘gaming’ of REF assessment, the funding councils have also set out some ways that the exercise might change, including a proposal to include all ‘research-active’ staff in submissions. The CMS response suggests that, alongside this proposed model, funding councils should consider developing a sampling methodology to select which outputs are assessed. It reflects that sampling might reduce the burden on assessment panels and consequently improve the accuracy of assessment.
The CMS response also points out that the volume and sheer value of interdisciplinary work (which it notes is the lifeblood of many areas of statistics), needs to be better recognised by the REF. It acknowledges that to address this more fully, major changes to the structure of panels for assessment may be needed.
Professor Guy Nason, chair of the RSS Academic Affairs Advisory Group, which collaborated with CMS colleagues, comments: 'As well as responding to the 44 questions raised by the REF consultation, we were also concerned by the arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework, the extra burden that this will place on the sector and the potentially antagonistic relationship with the REF. In our response we have suggested that the government and the funding councils should consider a more holistic assessment in the longer term.'
With regard to what the funding councils propose for the shorter term, the CMS response supports their proposal to broaden and deepen the definition of impact that the REF seeks to assess, and strongly agrees that funding councils and research councils should work together to align their definitions of academic and wider impact.
The CMS consultation response is available to read in full.