The UK's universities and science minister has announced a one year delay to a new research assessment system, saying that time is needed to resolve concerns over how the social and economic 'impact' of research is measured.
David Willetts made the announcement during a speech on the new UK government's vision for science on Friday 9 July at the Royal Institution in London, UK. 'We need to think harder about impact,' the science minister said, announcing that the delay to the REF would give the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) more time 'to figure out whether there is a method of assessing impact which is sound and which is acceptable to the academic community.'
Impact assessment, which could account for up to 25 per cent of research quality assessment under current proposals from Hefce, has come under fire from academics as being too narrowly focused on economic returns and potentially stifling blue skies research. Towards the end of last year the University and College Union (UCU) collected over 18,000 signatures on a petition calling for the abandonment of impact assessment within the REF.
UCU strongly backs the decision to delay the implementation of the REF. 'We think it's very much a good decision,' a UCU spokesperson told Chemistry World. 'We feel these proposals would wreck the very basis of innovation and fly in the face of what research is all about.' Should impact assessment still form part of the REF after the extra year's deliberations, the UCU spokesperson says the organisation will continue to fight against it - 'we oppose it full stop' he said.
However, results emerging from a pilot project assessing research impact involving a number of universities have suggested that some opposition to the impact agenda may be fading as researchers gain a firmer idea of what is expected. UCU, however, feels that the results of its petition are still valid. 'I think these [signatories] had a good understanding of what was involved, and there was very strong opposition to what was being planned and what it would entail and I believe that opposition still stands,' the spokesperson said.
Tough questions, tough timescales
Anna Grey, research policy manager at the University of York, UK, was involved in the impact pilot scheme in the university's physics department and says the delay doesn't come as a surprise. 'We've been expecting a postponement,' she says. 'The timescales were just too short and I think everyone in the sector recognised that - we're quite happy with having an extra year.'
David Sweeney, director of research, innovation and skills at Hefce confirms that an extension of the REF timescales had been expected - but is relieved that Willetts only chose to postpone the implementation for a year. 'Before the election he was talking about longer delays,' Sweeney says. 'I'm glad he's accepted that there is sufficient time to assess the outcome of the pilot with only a year's delay to the original timescale.'
While UCU is very keen for impact assessment to be pulled from the REF entirely, Grey thinks this is unlikely and says that taking part in the pilot exercise was quite useful and allowed them to identify some 'interesting' impacts of the physics research being carried out at the university.
The extra time will allow some administrative breathing space for Hefce and those involved in the impact pilot, and should mean the version of the REF that is eventually introduced is refined and more robust than it would otherwise have been. 'We take very seriously the critical comments that have been made and the pilot is intended to test them,' says Sweeney. 'If we don't get good evidence from the impact pilot then we'll revise what we're doing, but it's fair to say that the pilot is making substantial progress and we'll listen to the evidence that we collect.'
'The challenge is to offer very hard-headed evidence of economic returns to R&D in science and then hope that enables us to sustain the essential science base,' Willetts said on Friday. He said he 'believes' in the REF and but is sceptical of the impact agenda as it is currently constructed - a view he aired openly before being named universities and science minister in the new government - he said he 'can see why people got into it'. Willetts said it was important to look beyond peer reviewed papers as a measure of research success and consider other activities such as communication, influencing policy and public engagement.
'A peer review journal is part of the story but it's not the whole story, and the REF has to look more widely than that,' he said.
'We've known all along that we've got to convince a minister that is asking tough questions,' says Sweeney. 'But if we can't answer those tough questions then we shouldn't go ahead. We will make every effort to answer those tough questions.'
Universities will now make their first submissions under the REF in 2013, to inform funding decisions from 2015.