Lord Nicolas Stern review of the Research Excellence Framework

Lord Nicolas Stern

Last Thursday, Lord Nicolas Stern, published his independent review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the system that is used to assess the quality of research in UK higher education institutions and informs how quality related research funding is allocated. The Review explored the effectiveness of this system and made recommendations for how it might be strengthened.

The Royal Society submitted evidence to the review. As discussed by Professor Ottoline Leyser FRS in a previous blog post, the Society’s submission proposed that the research landscape should be based on the key principles of excellence in science, collaboration, diversity, openness and agility, and suggests these principles should be used to direct funding policy, including the design of the REF.

This blog post summaries the recommendations of the Review and considers how they could help deliver the supportive research system and culture necessary to enable the UK’s world-class research community to flourish and thrive.

Taking the focus away from the individual and recognising interdisciplinary research

The Society advocated a REF system that takes the focus away from individual researchers to one where institutions submit outputs to be assessed by discipline-specific panels. The Society also identified a need for the REF to better recognise multi- and interdisciplinary research.

Both of these issues are addressed in the Stern Review. The Review puts an emphasis on moving towards a more institution-level assessment, recommending that:

“outputs should be submitted at the level of Unit of Assessment, loosening the tight link or searchlight on the individual and shifting the focus to the Unit of Assessment”.

The Review also states that “it is vital that interdisciplinary work is submitted, assessed and rewarded through the REF”, recommending that:

“Institutions should be given more flexibility to showcase their interdisciplinary and collaborative impacts by submitting ‘institutional’ level impact case studies, part of a new institutional level assessment”.

Peer review for assessing research outputs

The Society agreed with the conclusions of the Metric Tide report on the role of metrics for evaluating research outputs, proposals and individuals. Specifically, the Society suggested that peer review should remain at the heart of the REF while acknowledging that metrics can acts as a tool to inform and supplement, rather than replace, expert review in some disciplines. This is echoed by the Stern Review recommendation that:

Panels should continue to assess on the basis of peer review. However, metrics should be provided to support panel members in their assessment, and panels should be transparent about their use”.

The relationship between research and teaching

The proposed reforms to how higher education, research, and innovation are governed and funded in the UK, and the split of higher education and research between two different government departments (as discussed by Zoe Jacobs’ previous blog post) raises the important issue of how the relationship between research and teaching will be maintained and strengthened going forward. The Stern Review emphasises the importance of integration of teaching and research and that:

links between teaching and research are key to the quality of the learning and research environment at the institutional level”.

The Society recently responded to a technical consultation on the design of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to monitor and assess the quality of teaching in English universities. The Society recommended that, in designing the TEF, care should be taken to ensure that timing, processes and incentives align with those of the REF. It is therefore welcome that the Stern review specifically recommends that:

Government should ensure that there is no increased administrative burden to Higher Education Institutions from interactions between the TEF and REF, and that they together strengthen the vital relationship between teaching and research in HEIs”.

The wider research landscape

The Stern Review explicitly states the the importance of dual funding to the UK research system and in particular the crucial role played by QR in allowing strategic investment in research, echoing the Society’s position.

It is also welcome that the Review makes a strong case for increased investment in research, highlighting that research is “a critical part of our culture, our understanding of what it means to be human and our well-being” as well as for supporting excellent research “wherever it is found” and expanding the notion of research ‘impact’ to include influence on public engagement, policy, culture and on teaching.

What happens next?

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson has welcomed the publication of the review. However, the government has not published a formal response to the report and so it is unclear how the recommendations will be taken forward. There is likely to be a consultation on these recommendations by the end of 2016 for results to be published by summer 2017. The timetable laid out by Lord Stern in the Review would see the next assessment take place in 2021, with the outcome published by the end of that year.