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RAE/REF and the ‘economic and social impact’ of research October 25, 2009

Posted by Alexandre Borovik in Uncategorized.
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Most likely you have heard about HEFCE’s proposal that in the REF (a  replacement for the RAE) 25% of future research funding would be  allocated according to the ‘economic and social impact’ of submitted  research. Many of our colleagues believe that this ‘impact’ proposal  represents an attack on the knowledge process and constitutes a threat  to the existence of basic research activity in the UK.

What appears to be missing from the increasingly intensive discussion is that the REF proposal provides not just the poison to kill independent  academic research, it offers a syringe for injection, too. The latter is described in a few innocuous lines about the aims of the exercise:

“We will be able to use the REF to encourage desirable behaviours at three levels:

  • THE BEHAVIOUR OF INDIVIDUAL RESEARCHERS WITHIN A SUBMITTED UNIT […]“

[http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/hefce/2009/09_38/09_38.pdf , page 8]

The emphasis on inducing change in the behaviour of “individual researchers” is the result of a slow evolution of the RAE/REF. In 1996 and in 2001, the RAE went to great lengths to ensure that individual researchers could not be identified in the panels’ responses. This changed in 2008, when the percentages of the submission with each number of stars were published. So it was possible, in the case of a small unit, to work out exactly how many papers were internationally excellent, etc., and make a fairly good guess which papers they were.

The passage in the REF proposal concerned with “individual researchers” is much more worrying, especially since this time “the overall excellence profile will combine three sub-profiles – one for each of output quality, impact and environment – which will also be published.”

If “behaviour” just meant “doing good/bad/no research”, it would not be so terrible, but since extraneous things like “impact” now loom large, HoDs will be able to use this to warn staff off doing their preferred research and onto more “impactful” projects. There is a danger that, at department level, the REF might be translated into unheard of levels of bullying and harassment.

Please sign the Number 10 Petition:

http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/REFandimpact/

Please also sign the UCU petition STAND UP FOR RESEARCH (even if you are not an UCU member; signing is open to everyone):

http://www.ucu.org.uk/standupforresearch

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