Extensive consultation leads to changes to the proposed Research Excellence Framework, but questions over impact assessment remain

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) has made changes to the proposed Research Excellence Framework (REF) following an extensive consultation with stakeholders in the research community. The consultation, which closed in December 2009, gave the opportunity to comment on the controversial changes to the way quality related research will be assessed in future. 

Hefce received a total of 534 responses to the consultation from higher education institutions, various organisations and associations and individuals. 

The council confirmed that institutions will be invited to submit a maximum of four, rather than three, outputs per member of staff to assess research quality. Although this will increase the burden on institutions and panels, it will easier indentify research excellence. The use of bibliometrics and citations will be a flexible option and each subject panel will decide whether it wishes to use citation data to inform its review of outputs. Panels will have to set out in their criteria whether or not they will use such information, and if so how.

Another concern voiced by the academic community was that the REF would collect similar output information as the research councils, doubling academic and administrative workload. Research Councils UK (RCUK) is developing a data collection system and co-operating with Hefce to reduce the reporting burden on academics. 

A question of impact 

Although there was widespread acceptance of the principle of impact in the REF, the overwhelming message from the research community is that the weighting of impact should be reduced from 25 per cent to as low as 10 per cent. Hefce maintains that although research quality will be the dominant element, the REF will contain a ’significant weighting’ for impact.

Hefce is waiting for the outcome of its impact pilot exercise later this year before making final decisions. Currently, 29 UK universities are piloting impact assessment for five units of assessment including physics and earth systems and environmental sciences. 

The outcomes of the consultation come shortly after the government’s Science and Technology Committee suggested that Hefce abandon its mission to measure the impact of research. Its recent report said, ’the difficulties associated with capturing past impacts effectively and allocating funds fairly on the basis of them will be insurmountable’. 

Leila Sattary