Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | October 24, 2009

RAE/REF and the ‘economic and social impact’ of research

Most likely you have heard about HEFCE’s proposal that in the REF (a
replacement for the RAE) 25% of future research funding would be
allocated according to the ‘economic and social impact’ of submitted
research. Many of our colleagues believe that this ‘impact’ proposal
represents an attack on the knowledge process and constitutes a threat
to the existence of basic research activity in the UK.
What appears to be missing from the increasingly intensive discussion is
that the REF proposal provides not just the poison to kill independent
academic research, it offers a syringe for injection, too. The latter is
described in a few innocuous lines about the aims of the exercise:
“We will be able to use the REF to encourage desirable behaviours at
three levels:
*  THE BEHAVIOUR OF INDIVIDUAL RESEARCHERS WITHIN A SUBMITTED UNIT [...]“
[http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/hefce/2009/09_38/09_38.pdf , page 8]
The emphasis on inducing change in the behaviour of “individual
researchers” is the result of a slow evolution of the RAE/REF. In 1996
and in 2001, the RAE  went to great lengths to ensure that individual
researchers could not be identified in the panels’ responses. This
changed in 2008, when the percentages of the submission with each number
of stars were published. So it was possible, in the case of a small
unit, to work out exactly how many papers were internationally
excellent, etc., and make a fairly good guess which papers they were.
The passage in the REF proposal concerned with “individual researchers”
is much more worrying, especially since this time “the overall
excellence profile will combine three sub-profiles – one for each of
output quality, impact and environment – which will also be published.”
If “behaviour” just meant “doing good/bad/no research”, it would not be
so terrible, but since extraneous things like “impact” now loom large,
HoDs will be able to use this to warn staff off doing their preferred
research and onto more “impactful” projects. There is a danger that, at
department level, the REF might be translated into unheard of levels of
bullying and harassment.
Please sign the Number 10 Petition:
Please also sign the UCU petition STAND UP FOR RESEARCH (even if you are
not an UCU member; signing is open to everyone):
Most likely the readers of my blog have heard about HEFCE’s proposal that in the REF (a replacement for the RAE) 25% of future research funding would be
allocated according to the ‘economic and social impact’ of submitted
research. Many of our colleagues believe that this ‘impact’ proposal
represents an attack on the knowledge process and constitutes a threat
to the existence of basic research activity in the UK.
What appears to be missing from the increasingly intensive discussion is
that the REF proposal provides not just the poison to kill independent
academic research, it offers a syringe for injection, too. The latter is
described in a few innocuous lines about the aims of the exercise:
“We will be able to use the REF to encourage desirable behaviours at
three levels:
*  THE BEHAVIOUR OF INDIVIDUAL RESEARCHERS WITHIN A SUBMITTED UNIT [...]“
The emphasis on inducing change in the behaviour of “individual
researchers” is the result of a slow evolution of the RAE/REF. In 1996
and in 2001, the RAE  went to great lengths to ensure that individual
researchers could not be identified in the panels’ responses. This
changed in 2008, when the percentages of the submission with each number
of stars were published. So it was possible, in the case of a small
unit, to work out exactly how many papers were internationally
excellent, etc., and make a fairly good guess which papers they were.
The passage in the REF proposal concerned with “individual researchers”
is much more worrying, especially since this time “the overall
excellence profile will combine three sub-profiles – one for each of
output quality, impact and environment – which will also be published.”
If “behaviour” just meant “doing good/bad/no research”, it would not be
so terrible, but since extraneous things like “impact” now loom large,
HoDs will be able to use this to warn staff off doing their preferred
research and onto more “impactful” projects. There is a danger that, at
department level, the REF might be translated into unheard of levels of
bullying and harassment.
Please sign the Number 10 Petition:
Please also sign the UCU petition STAND UP FOR RESEARCH (even if you are
not an UCU member; signing is open to everyone):
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