Sweeney ‘confident’ sufficient funding to ‘recognise success in the REF’

The executive chair of Research England David Sweeney told the higher education sector that the levelling-up agenda meant the government saw value in building strong research bases around the UK

Following the release of the Research Excellence Framework 2021, the executive chair of Research England said he is “confident” there will be “sufficient” money to reward the steep rise in high-scoring submissions.

David Sweeney, who is due to retire from leading the English HE funding body in August, spoke to Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), following the release of the seven-year research assessment project. The proportion of 4*-assessed submissions – the highest, “world-leading” category – rose 11 percentage points compared to 2014, from 30% to 41%. A further 43% was classed as 3*, up from 36*.

At a press conference to launch the results on 12 May, Sweeney said the results, which showed a marked increase in world-leading research in areas outside London and the southeast of England, had “succeeded in capturing a broader range of research that we didn’t capture before”.

The REF will be used to direct quality-related (QR) research funding, worth approximately £1.6 billion per annum across England. At present, QR funding is allocated to research judged 4* and 3* on a ratio of 4:1. The steep rise raised questions about how Research England would address allocations.

Hillman asked Sweeney if REF funding formulas would change if “there is not much more money on the table”.

“I’m confident we will have a sufficient envelope to recognise success in the REF,” responded Sweeney. “I’m sure that almost everyone will say we haven’t recognised it enough.”

Sweeney said that “it is possible there will be changes…I have to be open to the possibility”, adding: “Equally, we have not signalled that we’re going to consult on change methods. We’re not going to have a radical change in the way we do things.”

Hillman asked what balance Research England would seek between “selectivity versus levelling up”. Recalling previous Conservative administrations, Sweeney replied: “The clear steer from government was that we needed fewer [but] larger research teams, and we didn’t need the same thing happening in lots of places.

“[The] levelling up agenda comes with an assumption that there’ll be sufficient research capacity in different regions, and how we interpret that is going to take a bit of work… I agree that there’s an element of funding tension, which will have to play out. Collectively, we should look at the research system as a whole. And as the UKRI eight aim says, we should look at research and development delivering for every citizen.”

Sweeney suggested that the sector looks to private funders to help fulfil funding requirements. “I am confident government will deliver its part [on driving R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP]. Perhaps it won’t always deliver quite as fast as we would like. But when you see what’s happened with the economy, I don’t think it beholds us to complain too loudly,” he told Hillman. “I think we have to play a larger part, as the government keeps saying, working with private funders to stimulate additional investment.”

He encouraged researchers not to “refight battles” over Brexit “and move past that; whatever happens with Horizon, we’ve got to think how do we engage constructively”. The government has “been very supportive of association”, but the R&D sector must “make the best of whatever situation we end up in”.

The long-time public servant, who began working in research policy in 1976, will retire as executive chair of Research England in August, having agreed with ministers to lengthen his five-year term by several months. 

Read more: Higher education should be ‘less barbed’ with ministers, Sweeney suggests

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