Archive for QR funding

The Anomaly of Research England

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on August 16, 2017 by telescoper

The other day I was surprised to see this tweet announcing the impending formation of a new council under the umbrella of the new organisation UK Research & Innovation (UKRI):

These changes are consequences of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) which was passed at the end of the last Parliament before the Prime Minister decided to reduce the Government’s majority by calling a General Election.

It seems to me that it’s very strange indeed to have a new council called Research England sitting inside an organisation that purports to be a UK-wide outfit without having a corresponding Research Wales, Research Scotland and Research Northern Ireland. The seven existing research councils which will henceforth sit alongside Research England within UKRI are all UK-wide.

This anomaly stems from the fact that Higher Education policy is ostensibly a devolved matter, meaning that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have separate bodies to oversee their universities. Included in the functions of these bodies is the so-called QR funding which is allocated on the basis of the Research Excellence Framework. This used to be administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), but each devolved council distributed its own funds in its own way. The new Higher Education and Research Act however abolishes HEFCE and replaces some of its functions into an organisation called the Office for Students, but not those connected with research. Hence the creation of the new `Research England’. This will not only distribute QR funding among English universities but also administer a number of interdisciplinary research programmes.

The dual support system of government funding consists of block grants of QR funding allocated as above alongside targeted at specific projects by the Research Councils (such as the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which is responsible for astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics research). There is nervousness in England that the new structure will put both elements of the dual support system inside the same organisation, but my greatest concern is that by exlcuding Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, English universities will be given an unfair advantage when it comes to interdisciplinary research. Surely there should be representation within UKRI for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland too?

Incidentally, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has started the process of recruiting a new Executive Chair. If you’re interested in this position you can find the advertisement here. Ominously, the only thing mentioned under `Skills Required’ is `Change Management’.

Advertisements

Six (very) bad things about the REF

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , on November 22, 2013 by telescoper

I see that Jon Butterworth has written a piece on the Grauniad website, entitled Six good things about the REF, the REF in question not being a black-clad figure of questionable parentage and visual acuity responsible for supervising a game of association football, but the Research Excellence Framework.

I agree with some of Jon’s comments and do believe that past Research Assessment Exercises have generally raised the quality of research in UK universities. I do however think that there are some very bad things about the way the REF is being implemented, and that these far outweigh the positives Jon mentions. In the interest of balance, therefore, I thought I’d respond with a list of six (very) bad things about the REF, and particularly how it applies to physics. I’ll keep them brief because I’ve blogged about most of them before:

  1. The rules positively encouraged universities to play games with selectivity. This is absurd. All academic staff on teaching and research contracts should be submitted if a true indication of research quality is to be obtained.
  2. The criteria for what constitutes 3* or 4* publications are vague and subjective, leaving everything in the hands of the panels. Worse, all paperwork will be shredded after the panel’s deliberations leaving no possibility for appeal. This absolutely stinks.
  3. How QR funding will be allocated on the basis of the REF is not made clear in advance of the submission. Nobody knows how heavily the funding will be skewed towards 4* and 3* submissions. Having encouraged departments to play games, therefore, the REF refuses to disclose the rules. It’s not even clear there will be any QR funding.
  4. The panels will be unable to perform a detailed peer review of submissions simply because there will be too many papers. Each panel will be expected to make decisions on many hundreds of papers, leaving time only for a cursory reading of each.
  5. Limiting the physics submission to 4 papers per person is ridiculous. This corresponds to a tiny fraction of the outputs of a typical physics researcher. If someone has written ten 4* publications in the REF period, why should these not be counted?
  6. Impact counts for a sizable fraction (20%) of the funding, but the rules governing what counts as “impact” are absurdly restrictive and clearly encourage short-term commercially-oriented boilerplate stuff at the expense of genuine long-term “blue skies” research.

 

Well, I got to six in just a few minutes and could easily get to sixty, but that will do for now. Perhaps you’d like to contribute your own bad things through the comments box?

The Dark Side of the REF

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2013 by telescoper

There’s a disturbing story in the latest Times Higher which argues that the University of Leicester has apparently reneged on a promise that non-submission to the forthcoming (2014)  Research Excellence Framework (REF) would not have negative career consequences. They have now said that except in exceptional circumstances, non-submitted academics will either be moved to a teaching-only contract (where there is a vacancy and they can demonstrate teaching excellence), or have their performance “managed”, with the threat of sacking if they don’t meet the specified targets.  I’d heard rumours of this on the grapevine (i.e. Twitter) before the Times Higher story was published. It’s very worrying to have it confirmed, as it raises all kinds of questions about what might happen in departments that turn out to have disappointing REF results .

There are (at least) two possible reasons for non-inclusion of the outputs of a researcher and it is important to distinguish between them. One is that the researcher hasn’t enough high-quality outputs to submit. In the absence of individual extenuating circumstances, researchers are expected to submit four “outputs” (in my discipline that means “research papers”) for assessment. That’s a pretty minimal level of productivity, actually;  such a number per year is a reasonable average for an active researcher in my field.  A person employed on a contract that specifies their duties as Teaching and Research may therefore be under-performing  if they can’t produce four papers over the period 2008-2013. I think some form of performance management  may be justifiable in this case, but the primary aim should be to help the individual rather than show them the door. We all have fallow periods in research, and it’s not appropriate to rush to sack anyone who experiences a lean time.   Andrew Wiles would have been considered `inactive’ had there been a REF in 1992 as he hadn’t published anything for years. Then he produced a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Some things just take time.

A second reason for excluding researcher from the REF is that the institution concerned may be making a tactical submission. As the Times Higher article explains:

The memo suggests that academics would be spared repercussions if, among other reasons, the number of individuals submitted is “constrained” by the volume of case studies their department intends to enter to demonstrate research impact.

Institutions must submit one case study for every 10 scholars entered.

Maria Nedeva, professor of science and innovation dynamics and policy at Manchester Business School, said the tactic of deciding how many academics to submit based on impact case study numbers was “rife”.

(Incidentally, the second paragraph is not quite right. The number of case studies required depends on the number of staff submitted as follows: for fewer than 15 staff , TWO case studies;  for 15-24.99 staff it is THREE case studies – and then for each additional ten members of staff entered a further case study is required.)

e case study for every scholars included plus one, i.e. forThe statement at the end of the quote there is in line with my experience too.  The point is that the REF is not just a means of allocating relatively small amounts of so-called `QR’ research funding . Indeed, it remains entirely possible that no funding at all will be allocated following the 2014 exercise. The thinking then is that the number of staff submitted is largely irrelevant; all that will count is league table position.

This by no means the only example of the dangers that lurk when you take league tables too seriously.

If a department is required to submit, say, four impact cases if all staff are included in the REF submission, but only has three viable ones, it would not be unreasonable to submit fewer staff because their overall would be dragged down by a poor impact case even if the output quality of all staff is high.  There will certainly be highly active researchers in UK institutions, including many who hold sizable external research grants, whose outputs are not submitted to the REF. As the article points out, it would be very wrong for managers to penalize scholars who have been excluded because of this sort of game-playing. That’s certainly not going to happen in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University.  Not while I’m Head of School, anyway.

Moreover, even researchers whose “outputs” are not selected may still contribute to the “Environment” and/or “Impact” sections so they still, in a very real sense, do participate in their department’s REF submission.

My opinion? All this silliness could easily have been avoided by requiring all staff in all units of assessment to be submitted by all departments. You know, like would have happened if the system were actually designed to identify and reward research excellence. Instead, it’s yet another example of a bureaucratic machine that’s become entirely self-serving. It exists simply because it exists.  Research would be much better off without it.