Stern review of UK research assessment

Pile of journalsAn independent review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has been published by the UK Government. The review was led by Lord Nicolas Stern and was informed by a call for evidence to which the Council responded.

Research assessment was a central theme of the Council’s 2014 report on the culture of scientific research in the UK. The Council’s report was informed by a survey of almost 1000 academic researchers and 15 discussion events at universities across the UK.

Lord Stern’s review reflects many of the Council’s findings. For example, the Council found that peer review is highly regarded among researchers, which supports Stern’s conclusion that REF panels should continue to assess research primarily on the basis of peer review.

Concerns about the REF that were raised by participants in the Council’s project are also highlighted in the review, including the following:

  • The REF ties research quality too closely with individual performance as opposed to team-based research activity.
  • The way REF panels are set up may be deterring institutions from submitting multidisciplinary work to the assessment.
  • The pressure to create research impact may lead to a culture of short-terminism in academia, resulting in fewer new ideas and greater adherence to ‘safer’ research topics.
  • Selecting who should be included in the REF can generate problems with career choices, progression and morale.
  • Mentoring, training, peer review and other professional activities are currently undervalued in the REF.

Lord Stern makes a number of recommendations in response to these concerns, including that research outputs should be collated at Unit of Assessment level rather than the individual level. This has the potential to encourage institutions to present a diversity of outputs in a more portfolio-oriented approach, rather than only focusing on high impact journal articles, as the Council advocated in its report.

The review recommends that strong guidance is provided to REF panels on the importance of recognising interdisciplinary research, and that institutions are given more flexibility to showcase their interdisciplinary and collaborative impacts. These may increase recognition for researchers’ contributions to team science, as recommended by the Academy of Medical Sciences in a recent inquiry. Taking the focus away from the individual may also help to address the high levels of competition currently experienced by academic researchers, particularly those in the early stages of their career. The Council found that high levels of competition may be encouraging poor quality research practices and less collaboration.

The review states that the REF should be clear that impact case studies do not need to focus solely on socio-economic impacts but can also include impact on government policy, public engagement and understanding, cultural life, academic impacts outside the field, and impacts on teaching. This, and several other of Stern’s recommendations, supports the Council’s assertion that funding bodies should clearly communicate to institutions and researchers about funding strategies and policies.

Other important recommendations include returning all research active staff in the REF and assessing the research environment at both Unit of Assessment level and institution level.

The Council looks forward to seeing further details from the UK Governments and funding councils on the proposed process and the formula for submissions for REF2021.

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