Thousands of researchers sign a petition objecting to economic impact assessments in Research Excellence Framework proposals

Almost 4,000 academics have signed a petition which claims that the UK’s planned Research Excellence Framework (REF) is founded on a lack of understanding of how knowledge advances, and calls for the UK funding councils to withdraw the current proposal. 

The petition follows a letter from the University and College Union to Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which expresses concern about the lack of academics on the REF Impact Pilot Exercise Steering Group. 

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Research assessment shouldn’t focus so much on economic impact, say researchers

Under the new REF proposals, 25 per cent of the assessment will be based on the economic and social impact of the research. The steering group will shape how impact is assessed in the REF, but only three of the fourteen members are from higher education institutions. 

The signatories of the petition say that curiosity-driven research often leads to major scientific and cultural advances and the current REF proposal will create a funding regime that rewards research with clear economic or social benefits over fundamental research. Many believe that the REF proposal risks destroying the healthy research base in the UK by focusing funding on those who can demonstrate immediate benefits of their research.  They worry that this will cause academics to flee to countries such as the United States, leaving the UK research base in a diminished state. On this broken foundation, real advances of economic or social value will not be fully realised. 

Some of the first to sign the petition were chemistry Nobel laureates including Sir John Walker (who won the Nobel in 1997 for his work on ATP), Harry Kroto (1996, for the discovery of fullerenes) and Venki Ramakrishnan (this year’s winner, for his studies of the ribosome). They are now joined by almost 4,000 academics from the UK and the rest of the world. 

Ramakrishnan, from the University of Cambridge, UK, told Chemistry World  that although applied research with benefit to society is important, it must not come at the expense of basic research. ’Big benefits come from basic research in an unexpected way so we must value knowledge for its own sake,’ he says. ’You cannot easily pick winners.’

In response to the petition, HEFCE maintains that ’the REF will continue to give credit where researchers have produced excellent outputs during the assessment period, and this will be the most important single factor influencing funding. At the same time, the REF will also give credit for the overall impact of a department across a very broad range of potential areas of impact. This will enable HEFCE to demonstrate, as we should, that our very significant investment of public funds in research in higher education is producing a proportionate benefit in all cases.’

Leila Sattary