The REF panels review themselves

The main REF panels have published overview reports. James Coe has been reading them.

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

This morning the REF team has published a number of summary blogs across and within the main panels. It shouldn’t be underestimated that as a sector we have been well served this REF cycle by a team which has both managed an enormous review exercise and has been speedy with providing information to institutions and the wider public.

The overall summary report is full of useful insight and methodological notes and deserves detailed reading. Although methodological changes as a result of the Stern review mean comparisons with REF 2014 should not be made lightly, it is telling that there has been an enormous increase in the number of submissions by FTE compared to the 2014 exercise. For example, Main Panel C (social sciences) has seen a 63 per cent increase in the number of submissions. The report goes on to note that overall 84 per cent of activity was judged to be world leading (4*) or internationally excellent (3*) with “the highest quality levels were found in submissions of all sizes and in diverse types of HEI.”

The breadth of submission inevitably leads to a series of insightful vignettes across the summary report. In outputs there has been an increase in the use of “big data” across a range of research areas. In impact the team has shared that across the panels there remains some concerns on the requirement to submit two case studies where there is a very small submission.

And across environment statements there is “more developed evidence in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion within submitted statements, although there remains scope for continued improvement”. The rest of the summary provides a series of technical notes on inter-disciplinary collaboration, COVID mitigations, comparisons between 2014, and the robustness of the exercise, which will make for another blog another day

Panel by panel

In addition to the overall summary each main panel has provided a summary of their own activity. Each is worth reading in more detail than can be summarised here but there are some interesting areas of note.

For example, Main Panel A (medicine, health and life sciences) saw significant growth in collaborations between UK higher education institutions and international research partners. As might be expected Main Panel A saw a range of activity related to Covid-19. Owing to the timing of REF it is likely the next REF exercise, whenever and in whatever form that will be, will also see significant activity related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over at Main Panel B (Physical sciences, engineering and mathematics), fifty percent of impact case studies were considered to be outstanding, while 7 per cent of outputs had more than 15 authors compared to 3.4 per cent in the REF 2014 exercise – the panel notes this is indicative of the collaborative nature of research in this area.

Main Panel C (social sciences) shares another hugely positive picture on research strength, including through international comparators, while noting that progress in furthering the cause of equality and diversity in some areas remains slow.

Finally, Main Panel D (arts and humanities) is notable in both the breadth of areas it covers and the carefully consideration of impacts across “the economy, society, culture, public policy and services, health, production, environment, international development and quality of life,” amongst other areas.

Environmental audit

Reading across all of these reports it is impossible not to be struck by the sheer number of factors the teams have been weighing up in their judgements. Reflections like this should give the sector confidence that REF is an exercise which is robust, nuanced, benchmarked, and one where the expert input of the whole academic community (including colleagues from universities abroad) makes for an exercise which is supremely valuable.

This is not to say we should not be aware of its shortcomings. In particular, it should concern us all that the REF Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Panel noted there was little attention paid to protected groups, other than gender, in institutional environment statements. The below should give us all pause for thought as the future of the REF undoubtedly comes into focus in the coming weeks:

although the EDAP’s review of institutional and unit environment statements revealed much good, and some excellent, practice across the sector, it also showed that this was far from widespread. Although many institutions had successfully implemented several gender-related initiatives, there was much less attention given to other protected groups. The panel therefore had little confidence that the majority of institutional research environments would be sufficiently mature in terms of support for EDI within the next few years to totally dispense with a circumstances process.

This work is not only important for its own sake as clearly the right thing to do for the type of education system we all want to work in but the only way in which, as a sector, our research systems will reflect the breadth of talent we have. REF 2021 has shown the excellence of UK research, illuminated the best of our administrative and collegiate strength, and demonstrated that in some areas we still have a long way to go.

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