The next REF will conclude in 2028 and will assess research and impact between 2021 and 2027.
The exercise drives research excellence across the UK, provides accountability for public investment in research, and informs the allocation of around £2 billion of block-grant research funding each year.
The UK funding bodies are seeking to change the emphasis of national assessment from the performance of individuals to the contribution institutions and disciplines make to healthy, dynamic and inclusive research environments. They would also like the assessment to encompass broader contributions to research and the research process.
Reshaping the incentives
Redesigning the UK’s national research assessment exercise offers an opportunity to reshape the incentives within the research system and rethink what should be recognised and rewarded.
Changes for REF 2028 include an expansion of the definition of research excellence to ensure appropriate recognition is given to the people, culture and environments that underpin a vibrant and sustainable UK research system.
Building on changes made in the previous exercise, REF 2028 will be a more inclusive research assessment exercise, capturing the valuable contributions of a wider range of research and research-enabling staff.
Three assessment elements
Changes to the three assessment elements used will allow REF 2028 to recognise and reward a broader range of research outputs, activities and impacts and reward those institutions that strive to create a positive research culture and nurture their research and research-enabling staff.
The funding bodies have also sought to ensure the administrative effort associated with the assessment is proportionate.
The three elements of the assessment will be renamed for REF 2028 and their content adjusted to reflect this. The weightings between the three elements will also be rebalanced.
People and culture (25% weighting)
This element replaces the environment element of REF 2014 and 2021 and will be expanded to include an assessment of research culture. Evidence to inform assessment of this element will be collected at both institutional level and at the level of disciplinary submissions.
Contribution to knowledge and understanding (50% weighting)
This element expands the outputs element of REF 2014 and 2021. The assessment will continue to be largely based on assessment of submitted outputs. In REF 2028, however, at least 10% of the score will be based on evidence of the broader contributions to the advancement of the discipline.
Engagement and impact (25% weighting)
This element replaces the impact elements of REF 2014 and 2021, although it is similar to the impact element of 2014. Submissions will consist of both impact case studies and an accompanying statement to evidence engagement and impact activity beyond case studies.
A new approach
REF 2028 will take a new approach to determining research volume, moving fully away from any assessment of individuals. Research volume will be determined from average staff numbers over multiple years. There will not be any minimum or maximum contributions of any individuals.
In REF 2028 the work of all researchers and research-enabling staff will be eligible for submission. These changes are intended to increase the inclusivity of the assessment and provide an environment that is supportive of researchers who move into academia from other sectors.
The volume measures indicated in the initial decisions document are intended to determine the volume of material to be submitted to the REF. Decisions on funding outcomes based on the REF are completely separate to this process. Research England is currently reviewing their approach to strategic institutional research funding.
These modifications come after a full two years of activities during which the UK higher education funding bodies, as part of the Future Research Assessment Programme (FRAP), reviewed how national research assessment is carried out in the UK. They include wide consultation with the sector, such as roundtable events and two written consultations, and a number of commissioned evidence reports and analyses.
The Future Research Assessment Board also sought advice from an International Advisory Group, which provided insights into how research assessment is carried out in other countries. These are summarised in the ‘FRAP International Advisory Group report’. The funding bodies welcome the report’s recommendations and thank the group for its valuable contribution to the programme.
Sir Peter Gluckman, International Advisory Group Chair, said:
Traditionally the UK has been a leader not a follower in the issues of research assessment. There is a significant change happening globally to address the unintended consequences of traditional output-weighted assessment approaches.
If the UK wishes to remain at the forefront of the global research effort, it too must be willing to evolve its system of incentives.
Early decisions published
The early decisions made are published in the ‘initial decisions report’ and are in response to key drivers for change emerging from the evaluation and consultation activities. They also take into account wider research policies and developments within the UK and international initiatives to improve research assessment.
The decisions and consultation issues relate to the high-level design of REF 2028. The sector will have the opportunity to input into further development of REF 2028 in the coming months and to the detailed guidance and panel criteria during the criteria-setting phase in 2024.
Moment for change
Professor Dame Jessica Corner, Executive Chair at Research England, said:
This is a once-in-a-generation moment for change as we shift national research assessment away from a focus on individuals to how institutions and disciplines contribute to healthy, dynamic and inclusive research environments, and as we shift from a focus on published research outputs towards a broader view of what constitutes research excellence and how it can be demonstrated.
I am excited about the ambition set out in the Initial Framework for REF 2028 and look forward to working collectively with institutions, disciplines and all who contribute to research to realise the opportunity it offers.
Continue to engage
Dr David Blaney, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, said:
We and our partner UK funding bodies have reinvigorated our approach to research assessment. After working together, and in consultation with the UK HE sector and international experts, we are pleased get to the point of publishing the Initial Decisions REF 2028.
This should encourage the UK research and HE sector to recognise how a high-integrity research environment can support people, and world-class research. I encourage institutions to continue to engage with the continuing consultation so that final decisions can be made.
A broader view
Karen Watt, Chief Executive of the Scottish Funding Council, said:
The assessment of research at universities across the UK is vital both to our understanding of the benefits it delivers and to decisions on future funding.
The decisions published today, based on two years of examination and consultation, mean we can take a broader view of the activities and people that deliver research, in all areas, while also making sure that our assessment stays in line with international practice, remains relevant to those who make decisions about research in the UK, and – most importantly – remains fair to the staff who conduct and support the research and to universities.
A robust mechanism
Mark Lee, Higher Education Director, Department for the Economy Northern Ireland, said:
Excellent research is the cornerstone of a knowledge economy and the REF provides a robust mechanism for evaluating research quality – helping to demonstrate to the world the strengths that we have.
I welcome the shift in emphasis towards assessment of the more holistic research environment for REF 2028 and in particular the focus on people and culture. We look forward to continuing to work with partners to develop this framework.
Additional reports and consultation
Research England has also published an ‘equality impact assessment’. This report is an initial consideration of the equality impacts of the proposed approach in REF 2028. The assessment will inform further development of REF 2028.
Although the ‘initial decisions report’ sets the high-level framework for REF 2028, there are a number of matters on which further consultation and work is needed. Some of these will be pursued through a short, focused consultation (see annex B of the initial decisions report) while other matters will require discussion with the expert panels once they have been appointed during the first half of 2024.
Higher education institutions and other groups and organisations with an interest in the conduct, quality, funding or use of research are invited to provide their views on a number of specific areas (as set out at annex B of the initial decisions report).
Please respond to the consultation by midday, 6 October 2023.
View the reports on the Jisc website.
Three separate reports were published in December 2022 as part of the FRAP. Their findings are summarised in this announcement, which includes links to the reports.
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