Vice-Provost’s View 5/12/2013: Beyond the Research Excellence Framework

5 December 2013

“We submit, we submit!” With this teasingly ambiguous Tweet, the UCL Research Excellence Framework (REF) Team reported to the world the culmination of an endeavour that has detained more brilliant minds, for more time, than any of us would like to think.

This parting Tweet captures the unavoidable duality to our thinking about REF – it is both something we suffer, and something we promote.

Nobody actually does research for the pleasure of submitting it to a vast government bureaucratic assessment exercise. REF takes a relatively simple practical question – how should one element of government research funding be distributed? – and complicates it to an extraordinary degree.

Why REF really matters

A well scored REF submission will lead primarily to greater funding and an improved reputation for the unit in question. Yet we should not pretend that these scores change what really matters: the contribution that scholars make to human knowledge, and in turn the benefits that such knowledge when shared creates for wider humanity.

REF submission

The objective of football (from one point of view) is to score more goals than the opposition, but the goal of research is not to score a higher REF profile. Rather it is the object of REF to identify (in very broad terms) where excellent research has already happened.

REF really matters because it is part of what allows a democratic society such as our own to invest accountably in a significant volume of research activity across the full range of disciplines.

Other funding models – for instance, reliance on the largess of exceptionally wealthy individuals or military–industrial complexes, or self-support by researchers of independent means – have worked rather well in some historical contexts but seem less appealing today. That modern society is willing to trust so much investment to peer review by disciplinary experts is rather heartening to those of us who think that, by and large, such experts know best what is best in their disciplines.

REF looks to reward very worthwhile things, such as publications with “originality, significance and rigour”, research environments with “vitality and sustainability”, and non-scholarly benefits of research with “reach and significance”. All of these are things that UCL would value whether REF existed or not – our founders built such goals into the very DNA of our institution.

The latest articulation of our research mission is the 2011 UCL Research Strategy, Delivering a Culture of Wisdom, which has a love–hate relationship with REF. The strategy notes the wide acceptance of REF’s “not unproblematic” standards of quality, and endorses the adoption of diversity-related agendas within it, but then expresses implicit frustration with its limited approaches to cross-disciplinarity and unduly narrow conception of impact. 

Beyond REF

We conduct research because we value it in its own right; we then play the various games of REF in order to demonstrate our accountability to society for (some of) the considerable financial support it gives.

And play the games we have. Yet more than a year will pass before we know how REF panels have assessed UCL’s massive submission (for corroborating evidence of its mass, see the box below).

Like optimistic contestants in a flower-and-produce show – after seasons of cultivation, buckets of fertiliser, planting by moonlight, hopeful green shoots, unpredictable weather, weeding and pruning, and joyous harvest – we have presented our yield in its best light and must now clear off home for a mid-morning cup of tea while the judges do their judging. Only when the gates to the marquee re-open will we see what prizes await us.

In the meantime, we can consider which aspects of the process we would most like to change. At the top of my long list are REF’s:

  • simplistic, input–output view of the research process 
  • blinkered view of what is ‘useful’ research
  • counting only what can be counted 
  • unreasonable administrative burden
  • disincentivising of risk-taking in research
  • clumsy consideration of any research extending beyond the silos of assessment units.

Towards ‘REF2020’

We are also thinking about and preparing for the likely nature of the next such exercise. ‘REF2020’ (or 2021) will be with us soon enough. We are seeking to address, among other things:

  • impact. This was a new factor in this exercise, which is unlikely to go away and, may, indeed carry greater weight. We will make our shining examples of impact accessible and useful beyond the constraints of REF; become better at recording and anticipating impact; champion the UCL Research Strategy’s broad conception of ‘impact’ (beyond REF), and find ways to achieve greater coordination between our impact-facilitating units
  • open access. This is likely to be a requirement of published outputs. We need every member of our academic community to engage with it, starting with the funding and advice already available
  • cross-disciplinarity. We must lobby for a more effective approach to the assessment of work that is so vitally important to UCL’s research mission
  • information management. We must improve the information systems that record and facilitate research
  • best practice. We must tap into the great deal we can learn from one other by sharing effective strategies and tactics at departmental, faculty and institutional levels.

The plans in place will keep some of us busy for the next few years, but I hope that most of you will be able to concentrate on the more important (and pleasurable) business of actually doing excellent research, making our departments great places to work as researchers, and furthering the benefits to society of excellent research.

Many thanks are due. Firstly, to the thousands of you who generate new knowledge through research. Secondly, to the support professionals who have played a key role in preparing the submission, both in the UCL REF Team led by Andrew Cooper and throughout UCL departments, divisions, faculties and schools.

UCL can only perform at its best when our gifted academics have the highest level of support. I've no doubt that our university's research strengths will be properly recognised in a year's time, and that our enjoyment of the rewards to come will be due in large part to productive relationships forged in the fires of REF. 

Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research)

Image: UCL President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur and REF Manager Andrew Cooper make UCL's REF submission


UCL REF in numbers

  • 2,491 staff members (c.93.4%) were submitted as Category A (employed by UCL), a 32.9% increase in headcount compared to the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).
  • 451 of Category A submissions are ‘early career’ researchers, and 117 are over the age of 65.
  • 8,623 research outputs were submitted, including journal articles (86.6%), books or chapters (7.7%) and 126 portfolio submissions such as designs, exhibitions, artefacts and performance (1.4%).
  • 272 impact case studies were submitted.
  • 1,598 pages of text were in the submission, incorporating impact case studies, impact templates and environment templates.
  • 35 Unit of Assessment submissions in 32 discipline areas. Two of these were joint submissions with Birkbeck College (Biological Sciences and Earth Systems & Environmental Sciences).
  • £1.4bn research income (plus £326m ‘in-kind’ income) and almost 4,000 doctoral degrees were awarded over the assessment period.


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