Balancing impact in the REF

This post was originally published in Funding Insight, and is reposted with permission.

With the high-level decisions for the 2021 Research Excellence Framework published, the attention of the REF team, and of higher-education institutions, has turned to developing detailed guidance. In doing so we need to strike a balance between encouraging and nurturing excellence in new work, while also recognising it in work with a longer pedigree.

Impact and more impact

Nowhere is this more important than in impact case studies. The initial decisions confirmed that case studies previously submitted could be submitted again, provided they continued to meet the eligibility criteria. The criteria state that case studies must describe impacts arising within the current assessment period (1 August 2013 to 31 July 2020) and the associated research needs to have been published within the 20 years before the end of the assessment period.

However, this is not as simple as it sounds. If case studies that continue and build on those submitted in 2014 are submitted they will need to demonstrate ongoing impact, called by some ‘additionality’. What form should this ongoing impact take, and how should we assess whether it is enough to justify their inclusion?

This issue formed part of the discussion at a recent workshop (see this blog post by the Association of Research Managers and Administrators’ impact champion Julie Bayley for a summary). The information gained from these workshops will be reviewed by the REF team and guidance on ongoing impact will be released later in 2018.

Tactics and strategy

While this need to measure continuing impact will be important, I think it needs to be seen as part of a broader picture. Of course, the rules that are finally agreed will be essential from a tactical viewpoint for institutions. Asking how the rules will influence outcomes is, then, not an unreasonable question.

It is also important to think about how any rules will affect the long-term strategy for delivering impact, at both an institutional and national level. In particular, institutions will need to explain their impact strategy in the environment assessment of the REF submission.

The reason I raise this is because the purpose of the impact element in REF is twofold. First, it is to provide an incentive to institutions and researchers to invest time and resources in delivering impact. Second, it provides evidence at a national level of the benefits that flow from investment in research. This evidence makes a critical contribution tothe case to the government for maintaining and increasing funding for research.

A question of balance

Thus, it’s not about the snapshot that the REF provides. Universities generate impact from research because it is part of their mission, not just to meet an assessment requirement. As such, impact will almost always extend beyond the case studies submitted to the REF, and the journey to impact is often unpredictable and idiosyncratic.

In strategic terms, a wise strategy for delivering impact would be to adopt a portfolio approach, and this extends to considering how to tension investment in continuing to develop existing impacts against resources for expanding into new impacts.

This is very much a question of balance; neither focusing solely on the new, nor solely on the tried and tested but getting a mix between the two.

A healthy environment

Therefore institutions should worry less about how ongoing impact will be measured, and more about striking the right balance and the strategy that supports this balance, which is sensitive and appropriate to its individual context. It will demonstrate that the institution has a healthy research environment, which will also be assessed in the exercise.

In addition we want this balance at a national level. While there will undoubtedly be variations between institutions in terms of balance, the broad expectation across the UK is of a healthy mix, a diversity of examples that will both reassure the government about the investment it has made, and encourage it to continue investing in the future.

The REF impact case studies should showcase the exciting, diverse, new and sustained effects of the research being undertaken in universities. I hope they will answer the critics who question the need for research and the value of it. Never has there been a stronger need for such robust evidence, nor a more pressing demand for us–and the institutions we serve–to strike the right balance in the impact we present.