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Impact weighs in at 25% for REF 2021

The weighting of impact in the next Research Excellence Framework will increase from 20 per cent to 25 per cent, the UK-based higher education funding councils have said.

The decision was published on 1 September, following a consultation.

The funding councils said they had determined the overall weightings for the exercise after taking into account recommendations made by Nicholas Stern, a former British Academy president, in his review of the REF. Stern had said that impact should be “deepened and broadened”.

The funding councils also said that increasing the weighting of impact would recognise the importance of REF-driven funding in supporting the government’s industrial strategy, which had been highlighted through discussions with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The weightings for the next REF now stand at: 60 per cent for outputs (previously 65 per cent); 25 per cent for impact; and 15 per cent for environment.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, said the decision to place greater emphasis on the impact of research reflected the government’s commitment “to ensure that the vital work conducted by the UK’s world-leading research base progresses from ideas to economic and social benefit”.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, told Research Fortnight that the move was “sensible and welcome” because increasing the importance impact would ensure that the UK’s research system was “more responsible and accountable”.

The funding councils also announced that there would be a single unit of assessment for engineering in 2021. Previously engineering was assessed across four units: aeronautical, mechanical, chemical and manufacturing; electrical and electronic; civil and construction; and general engineering.

The funding councils said that universities would have the option of making multiple submissions to the engineering sub-panel, and that the sub-panel would set out and consult on the discrete discipline areas in which multiple submissions could be made. To address concerns about the size of the new unit, the sub-panel will also consult on its approach to assessing submissions, which may include a formalised sub-group structure, the funding councils said.

Archaeology will be removed from the geography and environmental studies unit and placed in a stand-alone unit of assessment. Meanwhile film and screen studies have been added to the renamed “music, drama, dance, performing arts, film and screen studies” unit.

The changes mean that there will be 34 units of assessment in 2021, down from 36 in 2014.

In an effort to support interdisciplinary research, as advocated by Stern in his review, each sub-panel will appoint at least one member to oversee the assessment of interdisciplinary research.

Assessment outcomes will remain the products of expert review, informed by metrics where appropriate, according to the funding councils.

The next round of decisions will be published later this year and will include the arrangements for submitting staff and outputs, the funding councils said. However, in a blog post in July, David Sweeney, who is to become chief executive of Research England when it is formally established in 2018, said he “will implement” the non-portability of outputs. He added that transitional arrangements would be needed for 2021.

Applications to chair the REF sub-panels are now open. The funding councils are looking for “experts from diverse backgrounds” with successful senior-level experience in conducting, leading or commissioning research.

Applications close at midday on 11 October.