It’s time to talk about research culture and the REF

The recently published proposals for REF 2028 have raised questions about the assessment of research culture and environment. Research England Executive Chair Jessica Corner broaches a sector-wide debate

Jessica Corner is Executive Chair of Research England, part of UK Research and Innovation

In June the four Higher Education Funding Bodies, including Research England, published the initial decisions on the 2028 Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Central to the package of reforms proposed is an increased weighting for the People, Culture and Environment element. The Contribution to Knowledge and Understanding remains the most heavily weighted and will assess a similar volume of research outputs as in REF 2021. We proposed that the assessment of the new People, Culture and Environment element will be based on a tight and structured format mixing quantitative and qualitative evidence, appropriately contextualised.

REF 2028

It was pleasing to see the many positive responses to our proposals and the thoughtful and constructive challenges in some areas. A number of aspects of the REF 2028 proposals are currently the subject of an open consultation, and we are looking forward to considering input on those matters after our current consultation closes in October.

As we have engaged and discussed the proposals with the higher education sector, some issues have been raised that are not covered in the formal consultation. Amongst these are concerns about the People, Culture and Environment element, and the balance of its weighting compared to the Contribution of Knowledge and Understanding element, as well as the extent to which we can develop robust indicators to allow the fair assessment of research environment in the time available. Some have questioned whether it is appropriate or beneficial to include a broader consideration of the research environment in the assessment. We have also heard that there are some specific worries about how institutions may ‘game’ the proposed approach.


Developing an effective and robust assessment that supports a thriving and healthy research system is our goal, so it is important that we work collectively to respond to these concerns. We will shortly be launching a tender for work to develop outcome-focussed indicators that can be used in the People, Culture and Environment assessment. In doing so, we will not be starting from scratch. This work will build on analyses we undertook and commissioned as part of FRAP, not least the Harnessing the metric tide report. We also know that many universities are already developing indicators to measure progress with their own research culture action plans, and we are keen to draw on this work.

We are committed to developing those indicators in partnership, and extensive engagement will be a core part of the programme. As part of the engagement, we will be testing potential indicators and the assessment approach with universities and panel members to make sure they are verifiable, feasible and that evidence can be collected with minimal burden. While we are confident that a set of reliable indicators can be developed, we may reflect on the relative weighting of the People, Culture and Environment element, depending on the evidence from the work to develop indicators.

In parallel, we will extend our engagement on the approach to research culture and environment in the assessment. We are inviting written comments on this issue specifically and will be convening further roundtables and open web events through the autumn that will feed into further development during 2024. We will be publishing details for this further engagement soon. We want an open and transparent debate and to fully explore the benefits, challenges and trade-offs associated with the current proposals.

New perspectives

We are very keen to hear all perspectives, and as we initiate the debate it is important that we set out our rationale for the changes clearly.

Research in our universities is extraordinary, vibrant and diverse, and spans the length and breadth of the UK. It is delivering breakthrough discoveries and transformational change and this research contributes to our standing in global measures as among the most innovative economies worldwide. But that doesn’t mean that our research system is without problems.

A hyper-competitive research environment and the so called ‘publish or perish’ pressures that exist in academia threaten research excellence. Concerns include undermining future confidence in published research outcomes by encouraging poor research practices and even fraud. The appetite to pursue long-term disruptive research is reduced and a focus on the performance of individual researchers perpetuates hierarchies, rather than supporting the collaborative teams of people in diverse roles needed to advance knowledge.

As a result, many people find the research system an unappealing place to work, and many people with much to offer feel undervalued or excluded. And, because of a focus on traditional measures of research activity, it can be difficult to move back and forth between academic research and other sectors.

These difficulties are a drag on our overall performance and need to be tackled. They are not unique to the UK research system but in addressing them we have a significant opportunity to show leadership globally.

The REF does not necessarily directly cause these challenges. But tackling them and recognising positive research cultures and environments is a key motivation underpinning the proposed changes which aim to look at research excellence in a more holistic and rounded way.

We want to recognise all the outputs of research, not just the publications and documents but also the impacts, research system innovations and, importantly, the skilled people who are at the heart of a thriving research system. This was a key recommendation from the International Advisory Group that was established as part of the Future Research Assessment Programme (FRAP) and is also aligned with the Government’s R&D People and Culture Strategy.

The four higher education funding bodies have a shared goal with the research sector to build a healthy and thriving research system that delivers the maximum benefits for society. We look forward to continuing constructive engagement on the future REF to enable us to deliver that goal together.

4 responses to “It’s time to talk about research culture and the REF

  1. It is right to continue the conversation on this is issue, and I applaud RE for doing so. Since the FRAP consultation was published, this element has generated more debate than others, and the proposed weighting has often dominated the debate, sadly. Let’s get this element ‘right’, and then determine a reasonable weighting. To a large extent, the other elements will be driven, and result from robust, equitable, fair, and transparent research culture. Sort the culture, the other elements will be more easily achievable..

  2. Creating a more collegiate research culture is something I long supported as a Director of Research, and published on last year (see link below). While the solutions I propose in the article will not fix the wider external problems, they would go a long way to promoting positive, inclusive, developmental research environments, and recognise and reward those senior academics who are already doing this.

    1. I wonder if you could send us your piece on research culture, please, the link no longer exists. We are just building our research culture and environment as a new higher education provider and this may be a helpful guide for us. Thank you. Dr Charles Mansfield, Principal UK Management College HEP, Manchester. You can easily find me on LinkedIn to reply.

  3. Yes, I agree it is important to develop a more positive research culture than the current hyper-competitive, hierarchical system. The best way to foster this, however, is not to change the rules of the REF game yet again – particularly not in ways that may end up disadvantaging those researchers who manage to produce quality research in their spare time despite an unfavourable institutional environment. We are long past the stage for reforming the REF, which is already far too complicated and top-heavy, so leads to the replication of this complicated top-heaviness in the way universities are run. Far better, simpler and more empowering would be to abolish the REF altogether and instead divide up research funding equally per researcher.

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