People, culture and environment are at heart of research

Definitions of research excellence are changing so the ways we assess it will evolve and include the importance of people, culture and the research environment.

I enjoy working across different organisations and different areas, finding the connections between them and between different people’s interests before working out a way forward.

I’ve just taken over as Director of Research Excellence Framework and this aspect of the job was a big attraction for me.

While my role sits in Research England, it was created by and reports to the four funding bodies for research in the UK:

  • Research England
  • Scottish Funding Council
  • Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland
  • Higher Education Funding Council for Wales

The Research Excellence Framework, or REF, is a system that’s used to assess the excellence of research and then to guide allocation of research funding to more than 150 universities and research institutions across the UK.

It’s a challenge to keep all these people and organisations happy, but the approach of the funding bodies is consultative, transparent and fair.

REF has worked well and always evolves

The REF exercise takes place every seven or so years and was last done in 2021. It’s my job to look at the evaluation of REF 2021, work with the evidence produced by the funding bodies and the Future Research Assessment Programme and establish the framework for 2029.

The UK’s national research assessment exercises have been running for nearly as many years as I have. It is widely recognised that these have increased the quality of research outcomes across the UK. The REF might not be perfect, but it has been very good.

It’s evolved over time because the research environment and the policy context in which we are operating evolves. It will evolve again as we prepare for 2029.

Definitions of excellence are changing

Definitions of research excellence are changing across the world. We are looking in a much more open way at what excellence looks like, and what outputs from research matter. This includes thinking around research integrity and the reproducibility of research results.

It’s not solely about published outputs, it’s about the impacts on society and the economy of public investment in research.

The work on impact over the last two REFs has been strong. No-one could argue that measurement of impact is not an important part of how we assess research excellence.

We’re now moving towards an increasing focus on assessing research culture and environment and the outcomes for people working in that environment.

This is difficult to measure. Countries around the world are recognising how important it is. We have an opportunity in the UK to lead the way in developing what measurement looks like and testing it.

What are we doing to keep best minds?

People often talk about skilled people as an ‘input’ to our research system, but they are an incredibly valuable ‘output’ created by the system. We need to capture positive innovations institutions are making around job precarity for early career researchers.

If you are an early career researcher moving between research contracts every year, how are you going to get a mortgage or settle down somewhere? What do you do if you want to have children in that situation?

If you are worried about having to apply for another job every few months, about having to stay in rented accommodation, about having to move cities, potentially disrupting relationships. Of course that’s going to impact the quality of research you do, the percentage of yourself you can bring to it.

Sustainability of research is important

How can we be sure the system is sharing the positive and negative learnings so the whole system is getting better?

We talk about publications and citation indices, and we talk about senior academics who have had a long history of referenceable four-star outputs. That is important, but we also need to ensure that the research system is sustainable.

In an earlier role I was based in India where I oversaw UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) strategy and relationship with that country.

I was really impressed by the way some UK universities were working with India to establish broader relationships.

They were not simply looking to recruit international students or run short-term projects. They were interested in a long-term partnership.

This long-term approach is what we’ll be trying to assess. Everyone rightly has their own systems that work for their own focus and strategy.

How you measure research culture is up for debate

There is consensus on the importance of research culture. However, what it is, how you measure it and how you consider it alongside contribution to knowledge, outputs and impact is still a matter of debate.

We have commissioned a major piece of work that will be looking to devise indicators for people, culture and environment.

We’ll be bringing in a team that will go out to the research community to co-develop ways to measure people, culture and environment.

These things need to be carefully explored and we’ll be testing what is proposed to see how it would work for different types of institutions and different disciplines.

I can’t think of a better place to get new ideas and test things than in the UK’s research base.

All the work so far on REF 2029 has included deep engagement and listening and reflecting on what the community is saying. That’s the way the funding bodies will continue to work.

REF 2029 may not be perfect but it will be fair

It’s about making sure that the policies we develop fairly support the different types of research that happen and the different outputs that come from all these areas. I believe the strength of the UK funding system and of the UK research system is in this diversity.

Over the next few years, I’m going to learn so much that’s new to me about the way universities work.

The community at both the funding bodies and in the wider research world have reached out to me and made me very welcome. That makes me want to do my best.

I know it will be a challenge to keep everybody happy. We cannot create a REF 2029 that is perfect for everyone. I will sleep well at night if it is fair to all.

Top image:  Credit: UKRI

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