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Research assessment reform: Hitting a stride

Image: Grace Gay for Research Professional News

Having found its feet, the Europe-based initiative to revamp research assessment is picking up pace

December 2023 marked the one-year milestone of an initiative to transform how research and researchers are judged.

The goal of the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment is to make research assessment fairer and more inclusive. It was born out of an EU-initiated agreement, brokered during 2022, that envisaged a more qualitative approach to research assessment without the use of inappropriate metrics.

Having fired the starting gun, the challenge for Coara is to move from agreement to making changes on the ground.

Karen Stroobants, vice-chair of the Coara steering board and an independent consultant on research culture, says that throughout the year she has been reassuring the initiative’s secretariat that “we would find our feet, and I think we did”. 

This is Stroobants’ second year on the board, but she has been involved since the drafting of the initial agreement. She tells Research Europe that the steering board is looking forward to producing more outputs after a year of ramping up.

This protracted start has not dented interest in Coara, which recently celebrated swelling its ranks to 600 members, having launched with 300 in December 2022.

During its first year, Coara has established 11 national chapters across Europe and launched 10 working groups on thematic topics in research assessment. 

As Coara has developed and its structure has grown more complex, the steering board has become increasingly important. 

In the coming year, “there will be an important role for the steering board to look at how we keep coherence across the different outputs and the different discussions that are being held within the membership”, Stroobants says.

Speeding up

Janne Pölönen is the coordinator of the working group for multilingualism and language biases in research, and was elected to the Coara steering board in December 2023. Outside of Coara, he is secretary-general at the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies. Whenever things become chaotic, Pölönen says he goes back to Coara’s founding agreement as a guiding star. 

“That is the good thing about the coalition and the agreement—it gives institutions that have engaged with it a common direction and commitment,” he explains. 

Pölönen adds that Coara has been catalytic in speeding up reforms. There had been “a lot of work in Finland already on advancing responsible assessment” and the country was one of the first to produce national recommendations, he says. Despite his country already putting effort into promoting responsible assessment, Pölönen says “Coara brought to the national context a very, very important boost, because now the institutions really got engaged with the reform movement”.

But he acknowledges that moving from agreement to action is not so straightforward, mirroring challenges Coara faces at the international level.

“It is one thing to produce recommendations and work on acceptance of change at a policy level,” he says. “But then, of course, the hard work of implementation has to take place in institutions where communities have to discuss why we need to make this reform.”

Maintaining momentum

One way that Coara is looking to help institutions work on reforms is by offering them funding. In November 2023, the initiative won an EU grant worth €5 million over three years, more than half of which will be distributed as cascade funding to individual organisations.

Stroobants describes the sums on offer as “not huge” but “a decent amount of funding to actually work on the change at an institutional or organisational level”.

She also says one of the priorities for the coming year will be to look at fundraising beyond the EU grant, “because it’s been clear from the beginning that this is not the only funding we should or can rely on”.

At the same time, the organisation still harbours strong international ambitions. “There is also a focus on further globalising the membership and trying to encourage more members from within and outside of Europe to join,” Stroobants says. 

By the time Coara passes its second-anniversary milestone, its backers hope that the momentum for lasting changes to research assessment will have built even further. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe