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Recognise all contributors to REF research, says David Sweeney


Research England head says technicians, librarians and research managers must be acknowledged in assessments

Research assessment in the UK must change to better recognise the work of everyone involved, and not just that of principal investigators, the outgoing executive chair of Research England has said.

David Sweeney has served for years as head of the agency, which oversees the Research Excellence Framework exercise, along with its sister bodies in the devolved nations. He stands down next month.

The REF determines the destination of millions of pounds of research funding, as well as a significant amount of institutional and individual prestige.

Now, writing for the Higher Education Policy Institute, he has said there needs to be “a discussion” about who is considered to be part of “the academy”.

“Our research teams now include experts with a range of professional responsibilities, whether they be technicians, statisticians, librarians, research managers and so on,” Sweeney writes.

“In considering research assessment, the work of those teams should be assessed appropriately, not just the outputs which bear the names of the principal investigators and some colleagues. These discussions are less well-developed in the theory and even further from a delivery mechanism.”

Sweeney’s words come as a broad conversation about the future of research assessment in the UK and globally gathers steam. A group known as the Future Research Assessment Programme has already been tasked with reviewing the most recent iteration of the exercise in 2021 and exploring options ranging from small tweaks to a complete overhaul.

Elsewhere in his article, published by Hepi on 1 September as part of a collection of essays on research assessment, Sweeney says there is “widespread support for a much stronger emphasis on recognising and rewarding desirable attributes of the research system”.

Dirty secrets

Elsewhere in the Hepi collection, Peter Mandler, professor of modern cultural history at the University of Cambridge, calls for the REF to be scrapped altogether.

“The time is ripe for a root-and-branch reconsideration. Rip up the rulebook and start again,” he writes. “Anything worthy of the name ‘research excellence’ has to put excellent research, not a lengthening government or managerial wish-list, at its heart.”

Mandler, who has worked as a REF assessor, says he used to defend assessment exercises as the “least worst” way to distribute government research funding.

He has since had a change of heart.

“The Research Excellence Framework…is no longer all that much about excellence, or even about research,” he says. “In the most recent exercise, direct assessment of research counts for only 60 per cent of the outcome.”

Mandler also questions how research impact and environment are assessed, saying it is a “dirty secret” that these aspects are assessed “much more sketchily, and with much less evidence, than is research”.

Responding to this, Sweeney counters that “pejorative language as Peter uses [‘dirty secrets’] is not helpful when it is as transparent as it could be that an Impact Case Study, at five pages, is describing something different from a magnum opus”.

The essays are available on the Hepi website.