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Next REF could ‘liberate creativity’, hints Jessica Corner

Image: BigT images, Academy of Medical Sciences

New Research Excellence Framework might also reduce “burden” on institutions, suggests Research England executive chair

The executive chair of Research England has suggested that the outputs component of the Research Excellence Framework could be “dialled down” while other components are “dialled up” as part of plans to reform the assessment exercise.

Jessica Corner said Research England and its partners in the devolved nations were working “very hard” on redesigning the REF as part of its Future Research Assessment Programme (Frap), with an update expected in mid-June.

“That will be the initial frame of the decisions for future REF and from there, there will be much more work on the very detailed design of it to go forward,” she said during a Higher Education Policy Institute and Elsevier research conference on 1 March.

In particular, she said the programme would be focusing on how to reform the research culture dimension of the assessment exercise.

“REF, we… know, has not been innocent in delivering to some of the dimensions and dynamics of research culture that we don’t entirely see as being healthy and what we would like it to be,” she said.

For example, she added, “perhaps it’s created too much of a focus on the performance of individuals precisely as defined by what REF expects, which is unhelpful and not liberating for that creativity.

“And perhaps it’s not been sufficiently acknowledging the full range of contributions to research—the full team, all of the different people that make very significant contributions to the sort of global challenge research we’re beginning to do.”


Measures currently being considered by the Frap team include readjusting the balance between output, impact and environment, she said.

“We think we will want to shift those, dialling down the outputs component and dialling up the others,” Corner suggested.

Other measures could include “broadening what the conception of outputs is to something that’s looking more at the wider contribution to knowledge and understanding”, as well as looking at what “different sorts of products and outputs for research should be looking at rather than… [being] fixated on an academic scholarly publication”.

Corner also hinted that plans might be in the works to reduce the burden on academic institutions preparing for the REF.

For example, she said: “We’re thinking a lot about what we can do that doesn’t require institutions to do things themselves in terms of creating a submission and identifying a staff pool and all of those things.

“How much could we be doing on behalf of the institutions that would take the burden away from the on-the-ground activity?”

Her comments come amid a sector-wide push to reform research culture, with the REF frequently pinpointed as an area needing reform.