Academy conference reflects on REF 2014 and looks ahead to the future

26 January 2016

The Academy of Social Sciences hosted an expert conference, ‘Impact and Implications: The Future of Research Excellence and the Social Sciences’, reflecting on REF 2014 and its significance for the future of social science and UK research more broadly.

The conference, held on January 14, was attended by a sell-out audience of over 100 social science academics and practitioners.

It saw presentations from Professor Dame Janet Finch FAcSS, Chair of Main Panel C, REF 2014, Professor Jonathan Grant, Director of King’s College London’s Policy Institute, and Steven Hill, Head of Research Policy, HEFCE. Roger Goodman, Chair of the Academy, led a panel discussion following the speakers’ presentations which included James Wilsdon FAcSS, Chair of the Campaign for Social Science, Ceridwen Roberts FAcSS, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, and Professor Sasha Roseneil FAcSS, Director of the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research, Birkbeck University of London.

Participants at the conference examined the effectiveness of REF 2014, what it said about the social sciences and the lessons that could be applied to REF 2021, while commenting on the indicators of the strengths underpinning the intellectual environment across the UK. They emphasised the fundamental role of the “impact agenda” and the important questions it raised around assessing and determining research impact, as well as around the scope and limitations of REF analysis.

Dame Janet Finch reminded the audience that the retrospective nature of the REF poses challenges for assessing continued impact over time. “Evidenced narrative accounts”, or case studies, were one methodology for establishing links between research and impact in non-linear ways. “Impact is not going to go away. But social sciences don’t have anything to fear from a continued or perhaps a greater emphasis on impact, especially if we manage to retain the narrative method for assessment,” she said.

The diversity both in the types of materials as well as the institutions that made submissions to the REF demonstrated a concentration and spread of excellence, it was argued. This was driven by the prominence of interdisciplinarity, translating into research that was “multi-impactful” and “multinational”, and that transcended the “fluid boundaries” across disciplines. This ultimately works to the advantage of the social sciences.

“A very large proportion of the impact case studies drew on insights from social science disciplines. I think that’s a really striking, though not particularly surprising finding,” said Steven Hill. Despite the strength of the UK’s research performance, however, room for improvement remains, as the volume of interdisciplinary research being published by UK authors is lower than some other developed nations.

Outlining some of the limitations of the REF, Professor Jonathan Grant asked whether “we want a performance-related research funding system?” in the first place. “If yes, you can’t fund on a performance-related basis without doing some kind of assessment. So the second order question is, ‘what is the most effective and efficient way of assessing research performance?’”

He pointed to the evolving nature of impact assessment and its ability to bring about cultural change at the institutional level while streamlining costs. “The fact is that REF is a bargain. You are allocating £10 bil of research funding for £250 mil. That’s 2.5 per cent. If you look at the equivalent transaction costs for research council funding, they are running at over 10 per cent, quite rightly. But REF is a very efficient way of allocating performance-related research funding.”

Professor James Wilsdon stressed the importance of looking at the wider international landscape. “We aren’t, of course, having this debate in isolation”, he said. It is necessary to look at how other systems are approaching similar exercises and to do a proper comparative analysis. “No one is saying that the system as it’s evolved in Britain is perfect, or that it’s the best system, but it’s the system we have and we need to be conscious about how others have approached it, what they’ve learnt, what mistakes they’ve made, before we tinker with it.

Looking ahead, the conference speakers highlighted the lingering uncertainties around REF 2021, while recognising the government’s commitment to preserving the dual support system as a mechanism for capturing a wide range of work. They cautioned, however, against an overreliance on – though not complete rejection of – metrics-based evaluation, and underscored the need for a regime which offers a fair reflection of the strengths of the social sciences.

In recapping the impact of REF 2014, Dame Janet Finch said: “What we see is really a very positive picture for social science. I think my headline summary would be that it shows that in the social sciences we have strength in breadth as well as in depth.”

Full audio and a Professional Briefing will be made available shortly.

Janet Finch presentation slides
Jonathan Grant presentation slides
Steven Hill presentation slides

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