It’s been six years in the making but the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 are finally out. The news for research and chemistry specifically is excellent. Nearly all of the research submitted by 41 chemistry departments was deemed to be either world-leading or internationally excellent. It’s a huge vote of confidence in the UK’s chemical sciences.
For those that have been involved it’s likely to have felt like a long process – something exacerbated by the pandemic which saw the assessment process paused for four months. Everyone who submitted or helped organise and administer REF can give themselves a pat on the back. It was a gargantuan effort that involved 157 universities and more than 76,000 staff.
Chemistry departments across the country can be particularly pleased that nearly every eligible researcher contributed. This team effort means that REF 2021 presents arguably the most comprehensive picture of the quality of UK chemistry yet. And the results for research as a whole show just what you’d hope to see – that there’s strength and depth across all the sciences.
You’d think after organising, gathering and publishing REF 2021 there would be a hiatus for everyone to catch their collective breath. But researchers are already thinking about the next one, and the lessons learnt from this one. A four month review, revisiting 2015’s The Metric Tide, started in May to look at the role of metrics in managing research, including how they might fit into the next REF, the results of which we can presumably expect at the end of the decade.
The usual questions over whether REF is a worthwhile exercise have been aired too. Critics point to its enormous costs in time and money – the price tag for REF 2021 hasn’t been calculated yet, but REF 2014 cost an estimated £¼ billion. On the other hand, those who are happier with REF note that ‘peer-review is the worst form of evaluation – except for all the others that have been tried’. If we didn’t have REF how else could a department prove its research prowess and stake a claim to additional research funding? Meanwhile, the Royal Society of Chemistry, among others, is highlighting a worrying decline in real-terms of the pot of cash distributed using REF.
With the dust settling on the results, it’s also time to take stock of changes introduced from last time. As well as getting more researchers involved, each researcher could pick and choose how many submissions to make up to a maximum of five this time, rather than every researcher submitting four. This creates a more inclusive REF, giving everyone a chance to participate, with those who do more teaching or outreach work able to feel part of the process. This change has also been praised for incentivising quality over quantity. A welcome development I think we can all agree. See you in 2028, then?