2014 is the year of the REF (Research Excellence Framework). It follows the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) of 2008, but University researchers have not really had six years off.

There has been a scramble through 2012/2013 to put submissions together, and as soon as the results are out, we will no doubt start thinking about, worrying about and planning for RUBBE 2019. (‘Utter Brilliance for the British Economy’, in case you were wondering.) Standing at the edge of academia as we do, it has been really interesting to observe the process. There is no doubt that it has sharpened minds to try to ensure that the value of research is optimised, albeit sometimes on measures (e.g. impact, economic growth, etc) that are not easy to attribute to all types of research. But undoubtedly it has also resulted in academic institutions packaging and presenting their outputs in ways that individual researchers are not always comfortable with. Perhaps that is not new, but one gets the feeling that it becomes a bit more intense as the stakes are raised.

If the REF were the only extrinsic pressure on researchers, we might nevertheless recognise that it is necessary in some form, and that it is manageable. But there are other pressures, and we are not alone in observing a growing anxiety that, when combined, these may be having unhealthy effects. If we look also at the demands of securing research funding, the imperative to publish in high impact journals, and the generally competitive nature of a career in science, we find a cumulative set of pressures that create an environment in which people may find it difficult to maintain their professional ideals. By this I don’t mean that they are forced into committing research fraud or even misconduct – though such things do occur. What we are concerned with here is the increasing worry that the conditions under which people work, with the demands of funding, evaluation and publication, are adversely affecting the quality of scientific research itself.

The ideals of science are high, ethical and easy to support. That does not mean that research should be untroubled by finance and accountability - few would suggest that money should be handed over without any regard for quality, outcome or societal relevance. Indeed, many would justifiably claim that the competition that the system generates is what forces the best proposals to emerge and the most productive research to be delivered. So why are people worried? And people really are worried. Working as we do in the area of biological sciences, we have spoken to those who represent life science researchers and research interests – the Royal Society, the Society of Biology and other learned societies – and we find that there is a shared concern that this combination of pressures is creating an environment in which purely scientific objectives become secondary to meeting narrow funding criteria; in which claims about the social or economic potential of a research endeavour are overplayed; and in which careers are advanced or harmed by measures that seem unrelated to scientific excellence.

None of the elements of the system as it is experienced in the life sciences – funding, publishing, assessment – are new or unique, but there is a distinct sense that the narratives and policy imperatives that are driving it are all harnessed in a direction that exacerbates the tensions. There is a widespread unease with the way some people and institutions operate, and a fear that there will ultimately be a serious loss of trust in science as an unambiguously positive societal activity.

All of which explains why we took a lead in setting up a Steering Group to promote discussion and gather views from those working in science about how the research environment is affecting the quality, value and ethical conduct of research.

This is not a project in the usual mould of a Nuffield Council Working Party, tasked with producing a report and policy recommendations. Guided by commitments in our Strategic Plan to be more flexible in considering what kinds of activities are most suitable for exploring each topic and what type of outputs we produce, this is a different kind of project. The Steering Group is made up of representatives of key organisations within the UK science community, including the Royal Society, Society of Biology, Institute of Physics and Royal Society of Chemistry. What we are planning is a collaborative exploration of the issues facing researchers and research institutions in the hope that we can identify where negative pressures lie, and how they might be alleviated without undoing the positive and challenging elements of the system. The Steering Group will want to engage those working in other areas of academia, both as researchers affected by the same pressures and as expert contributors to the discussion and understanding of the current research environment.

We’ll be out talking and listening at meetings and events throughout this year, and will want to hear from as many people as possible from a wide range of disciplines and also from those working in policy, publishing and funding areas. If you are interested, concerned (or not concerned), or just curious, keep in touch. We’ll issue an online survey very shortly, and you can sign up here for updates on the project.

Comments (4)

  • Ian McNay   

    Comments such as these are important to feed to HEFCE in its review of REF and particularly impact. Yet only one reply per instiutution is allowed, so it is unlikely that reflections on internal management or the negative effects of the exercise, as seen by researchers themselves, not managers will feature in submissions. This contrasts with New Zealand, where the review of the equivalent - The Performance-Based Research Fund [PBRF] invited submissions from HEIs departments within them, staff within them, even student organisations. All replies were then published, with little apparent editing/redaction.

  • Hugh Whittall   

    Thanks for these comments, lots for us to think about. We're keen to hear more of your thoughts and opinions in our online survey which is coming later this month – please do respond to that.

  • Hilary Sutcliffe   

    y good idea Hugh. I am involved in various arms length ways with three Universities in the UK and US, as well as with various others through joint projects, and I have been amazed at the complexity and conflicting priorities they face, in particular around the tyranny of citations in direct conflict with the need for engagement and impact. As an outsider I think this is totally wasting the brilliant brains we have in academia to focus solely on citations in a small number of journals as the only means of promotion and career enhancement. I feel strongly that engagement in its widest sense (not public engagement only) should be officially prioritised within Unis, and I appreciate that is what the REF is trying to do, but it is still at odds with the citations criteria, simply adding another layer of complexity as you say. Some are trying hard to do that, and succeeding in their own university, but researchers are definitely penalised career wise if they take their eye off the citations ball outside a few innovative places. How can this be rectified without adding additional pressure. I will be sending a link to your consultation to some who have felt they have chosen engagement over career enhancement deliberately. Very sad.

    I am also slightly disappointed by your steering group if I am honest. I appreciate that you are aiming to reach individual researchers, young researchers etc through the consultation (which I hope submissions can be anonymous), but it is the usual great and the good in charge of research, it would have been interesting to see younger researchers in there and those involved at different levels in the more peripheral fields in the bioethics areas. I appreciate also that you have said that they will be engaging widely, so perhaps it will be achieved and what I am meaning would have been a token.

    Good luck, I am looking forward to seeing your output. An interesting aside, the multistakeholder steering group of MATTER (including academics) agreed that MATTER should no longer participate in academic projects such as Research Council or EC Framework projects because the outputs remain in academic journals and make little contribution to society. I am new to this area and it has taken me five years to realise that this is really the case in so many areas - such brilliant work and tax payers money squandered by being written in my area of social science in particular in incomprehensible language, read by one's mates and a few others peers, signifying not a great deal. This is a global problem, not a UK problem, but disappointing and to an outside astonishing nonetheless.

    I have been reading more of the behavioural sciences, most recently Margaret Heffernan's work on Wilful Blindness and her new book on why Competition is counter productive and collaboration essential, I feel she points out so many issues about tribalism, competition, fear of failure which explain some of the difficulties facing academia and hope that your report may also look at the cognitive issues as well as simply the procedural ones.

  • David Colquhoun   

    I'm glad you are looking at this. The system of perverse incentives under which much science exists has encouraged shortcuts, short-termism, guest authorship, ghost authors *in clinical work). They have led to corruption and in the end will damage the economy of the country as well as lead to distrust in science. People are beginning to wake up to the seriousness of the problem thanks to people like John Ioannidis, Peter Gotzsche and a host of science bloggers. On the other hand regulatory agencies have mostly added to the problem, rather than helping.
    Something must be done.

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