REF review must motivate ‘diverse, creative and risk-taking work’ – Solloway

Research minister Amanda Solloway has said surveys suggested many researchers were unhappy with the current REF

Research minister Amanda Solloway has announced a root and branch review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Ms Solloway has today instructed Research England to commence work with research funding bodies in the devolved nations on a UK-wide plan for reform, which will restructure the REF after the current 2021 assessment is complete.

The REF is used to allocate nearly £2 billion in annual research funding. It uses peer assessments and research outputs across the UK as metrics for measuring success.

Outlining her goals for the review during a Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) event on UK research policy, Ms Solloway said the new system must create “more quality time” for research, build a culture that “recognises all contributions”, offer “clear accountability for public funding without…complex bureaucracy” and motivate researchers “to do diverse, creative and risk-taking work”.

We risk breeding resentment and eroding trust in our ability to evaluate the system effectively and unfairly
Amanda Solloway, minister for research, science and innovation

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) this year published its Research and Development Roadmap, which Ms Solloway said set the UK on a path to becoming a “global science superpower”. Minister Solloway identified the REF as an obstacle to those ambitions because “universities have turned the REF into a major industry with rising costs and complexity”.

Although successful in some areas, the REF had encouraged “negative behaviours”, Ms Solloway said.

“There are now very few parts of academic life in the UK that are not affected in some way by the REF. The REF ruleset implemented in a risk-averse way has become the default tool for many university leaders to effect institutional change. But a risk-averse compliance culture risks stifling creativity and diversity.

“We risk breeding resentment and eroding trust in our ability to evaluate the system effectively and unfairly. Indeed, we know that four in 10 surveyed researchers believe that their workplace puts more value on metrics than on research quality.”

REF review must motivate 'diverse, creative and risk-taking work' – Solloway
Ms Solloway was addressing a virtual Higher Education Policy Institute event on UK research policy.

A 2016 review of the REF had helped “make important reductions to institutional game playing and the negative impact of the exercise on individual researchers” but had not “gone far enough”, she continued. “There is nothing in my view that we cannot look at and cannot consider.”

Despite her criticisms, Ms Solloway added that she had “absolutely no intention of disrupting the important work of the current REF”.

Referring to one key aspect of the REF’s assessment criteria, Ms Solloway said the focus on published work was “a total distortion of the value of research” and “confused the process with an outcome”.

“Despite a rich variety of outputs that can come from research, over 97% of outputs submitted to REF 2014 were text-based,” she complained. “Researchers tell me they feel pressure to publish in particular venues in order to gain respect to their peers, which wrongly suggests that where you publish something is more important than what you say.”

She has written to science ministers around the world to discuss the UK’s work to develop “responsible metrics”, including partnering with Dutch and South African partners on the Global Research Council virtual event.

The dual funding system was a “key strategic advantage” of the UK’s research policy that should be protected, Ms Solloway said. She added that the UK higher education sector should look to end its reliance on international student fees to cross-subsidise research.

Ms Solloway said the ‘levelling-up’ agenda would not “diminish” any part of the UK’s research landscape. She rebuffed concerns her government was preoccupied with STEM research and added that the government’s ambition to become a “science superpower” would not stop it from considering research “holistically”.

Read more: Interview: Chris Skidmore, former universities minister

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