Reading my colleagues’ papers, a key step in our evaluation of outputs, was very, very useful. I learned many new things and also understand the research across my Institute and indeed large parts of the Faculty much better. The University has yet to use this knowledge accumulated by its REF Wallahs – it would make sense for these people to inform research policy, they have read a lot of papers.
The Faculty Clinical Medicine subpanel meetings were fun – my colleagues on this panel are a great bunch to work with and their injection of humour into proceedings eased the pain.
What about the “pain”? The combination of being REF Wallah and Head of Department came close to killing my research career – 2013 outputs were down to just 2 papers, 2014 is a more reasonable 6, and 2015 will be similar. So REF is destructive at a personal level and consequently at an institutional level.
Is the definitively better research performance of the institute in 2014 compared to the 1990s and 2000s down to RAE/REF ?
I argued in a previous post “In Defence of REF” that RAE/REF have been important in combating nepotism in appointments and ensuring the adoption of a meritocratic agenda in appointments. So one can argue that there is a correlation between the idea of RAE/REF exerting such pressure and those departments that have improved by pursing a meritocratic appointment agenda.
However, this is a correlation
Would that agenda have been pushed anyway, simply due to the normal pressures associated with managing a department in a university? I suspect the answer is at least a partial yes. Looking across the time covered by RAE/REF there are examples, such as ours, of departments that have increased in research power, but also examples where the reverse happened, due in part to poor appointments. So perhaps the value of the pressure exerted by RAE/REF in increasing research activity is overvalued?
I don’t have a clear answer here and I haven’t come across a suitable longitudinal study that might provide data to develop a clear answer. However, from my limited personal view across various departments in the UK where I have some in-depth knowledge, the answer can at most be a qualified yes, and no more.
The other side of the coin is the view that some sort of external pressure is always good, but when it becomes all consuming its value is reduced to zero, and then it becomes a hindrance to progress. RAE/REF looks like it has run its course and may well have entered negative value territory.
However, we need to be answerable to Parliament and hence the taxpayer. So some sort of method is required that provides funding to universities that is not tied to specific PIs, to allow universities to function as such.
There are many alternatives. Given REF 2014 panels that covered large areas of research, then for STEM fields, Dorothy Bishop’s idea of a Departmental h-index seems quite useful – we get a result, it is cheap and staff can get on with research and teaching, rather than sinking without trace in the swamp of REF. Another way forward is to consider what drives research performance down or up. Ultimately it is people and an institution’s ability to foster long-term creativity in staff.
So down drivers include: insularity, nepotism in appointments, discrimination, bullying, and so on.
Up drivers: expansiveness, meritocratic hiring with a 30+ year perspective (=career), diversity and mentoring.
A system proposed by Jenny Martin, provides an alternative set of parameters and these certainly fit the bill for driving research performance up.
So have RAE/REF been useful? On balance, I think not. There are easier ways to distribute funds from government to universities and I cannot see that the assessments have in themselves directly driven an increase in research quality.