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EU assessment reform ‘needs to bring whole sector along’

RPN Live: Speakers underscore need for engagement with politicians and researchers at all levels

The EU-initiated reform of European research assessment must work across the sector as well as with governments and global partners if it is to be successful, people involved in implementing it have said at a Research Professional News Live webinar.

The European Commission started the reform process in 2021, expressing concern that assessment was too narrow. This was in-keeping with a feeling among many in the sector that an over-reliance on publication metrics has harmful effects on the research environment, the diversity of the sector and its outputs.

Since then, the Agreement on Reforming Research Assessment has been developed and signed by 500 organisations, and the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment has been created to help implement it. Coara had amassed 422 member organisations as of last month, its steering board chair Rianne Letschert said in the webinar on 4 April. These include universities, funders and academies.

‘Huge and fundamental change’

The agreement aims to make assessment fairer and more inclusive by reducing reliance on unsuitable use of metrics, such as journal impact factors and institutional rankings. Its implementation requires “huge” and “fundamental” change of research organisations and the research culture respectively, “which is not easy”, Letschert, who is also the president of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, admitted in her keynote speech at the webinar.

“There’s a lot at stake,” she acknowledged, but warned that this was true not only of the reform but also if assessment is not changed. 

“We don’t want to lose the main value within our research system, which is our staff, our members, our academics,” she said. “If we don’t change [assessment], I hear too many times from young people: ‘We don’t want to work in this academic system anymore.’”

Last month, Coara launched its first call to propose working groups to devise ways forward and to form national chapters for knowledge exchange and discussion. Other speakers at the webinar stressed the need to involve a broad swathe of actors in these and other discussions, including universities, researchers at all careers stages, funders and governments.

Need for political involvement

The reform push is a “unique opportunity to realign research assessment with core academic values, such as research ethics and integrity, diversity, equity and inclusion, collaboration and openness”, said Stephane Berghmans, research and innovation director at the European University Association.

Alongside Science Europe, the association of research funding and performing organisations, and independent expert Karen Stroobants, the EUA helped to draft the reform agreement under the coordination of the Commission and with input from hundreds of sector organisations. Now, there is a “significant engagement from European universities” in the coalition, Berghmans said.

But he also stressed the need to involve governments in the reform process. While Letschert said there had been some “critique” that the process is being too driven by the Commission, she said she sees its involvement as “very positive”, while Berghmans said there is a “fundamental” need to maintain discussions with governments even though they are not able to join Coara.

“Clearly there are funding barriers but also administrative and legal barriers” to the reform process, Berghmans said. “For a lot of countries the reform will not be possible at all without the engagement of and dialogue with governments, to change for example legislation…We will need to engage all stakeholders.”

The movement must also be a global one, he said, because academia itself is a global endeavour.

Chance to open up

For Dipti Pandya, a board member of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators and senior manager of research programmes at University College Dublin, the reform push “should be about inclusion and wider participation in academic careers”.

“In the current system, it’s not necessarily open to non-standard academic career paths because it’s a very linear system, it reflects and rewards somebody who’s gone through a very standard academic career path,” she said. 

“I think the potential here is so vast and so enticing in terms of bringing more and different types of people into academic research.”

This will require “listening to everybody and understanding what their needs are”, she said, adding that “how we build that buy-in [from all involved] is really the task ahead”. On the other hand, she said that funders adopting mandatory new policies, such as Science Foundation Ireland now requiring narrative-form CVs instead of lists of publications from applicants, had already proven “helpful” in starting to drive change in her country.

Call to support researchers

Sebastian Dahle, vice-president of the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, said that researchers at the start of their careers, who “more often are in a precarious situation and have to deal in many cases with very short, fixed-term contracts”, might need extra help adapting to new assessment systems.

“Under all these pressures…if [assessment] is now changed…this can have quite an enormous impact, and so we need to make sure not to derail such careers but really to help [these researchers] along with the change to make the system better for everyone,” he said.

This could be done, he suggested, by making sure assessment is of higher quality and lower frequency, and by being clearer about the purpose of each assessment, because “depending on the setting, depending on the purpose, the way we do this, the metrics we use, the entire process will look quite different”.

The outcome will not be a one-size-fits-all system, Letschert promised, but instead a “flexible and dynamic” set of processes that allows room for institutional autonomy.

A version of this article appeared in Research Fortnight and Research Europe