I feel obliged to comment on the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) that were announced today. Actually, I knew about them yesterday but the news was under embargo until one minute past midnight by which time I was tucked up in bed.
To give some background: the overall REF score for a Department is obtained by adding three different components: outputs (quality of research papers); impact (referrring to the impact beyond academia); and environment (which measures such things as grant income, numbers of PhD students and general infrastructure). These are weighted at 65%, 20% and 15% respectively.
Scores are assigned to these categories, e.g. for submitted outputs (usually four per staff member) on a scale of 4* (world-leading), 3* (internationally excellent), 2* (internationally recognised), 1* (nationally recognised) and unclassified and impact on a scale 4* (outstanding), 3* (very considerable), 2* (considerable), 1* (recognised but modest) and unclassified. Impact cases had to be submitted based on the number of staff submitted: two up to 15 staff, three between 15 and 25 and increasing in a like manner with increasing numbers.
The REF will control the allocation of funding in a manner yet to be decided in detail, but it is generally thought that anything scoring 2* or less will attract no funding (so the phrase “internationally recognised” really means “worthless” in the REF, as does “considerable” when applied to impact). It is also thought likely that funding will be heavily weighted towards 4* , perhaps with a ratio of 9:1 between 4* and 3*.
We knew that this REF would be difficult for the School and our fears were born out for both the Department of Mathematics or the Department of Physics and Astronomy because both departments grew considerably (by about 50%) during the course of 2013, largely in response to increased student numbers. New staff can bring outputs from elsewhere, but not impact. The research underpinning the impact has to have been done by staff working in the institution in question. And therein lies the rub for Sussex…
To take the Department of Physics and Astronomy, as an example, last year we increased staff numbers from about 23 to about 38. But the 15 new staff members could not bring any impact with them. Lacking sufficient impact cases to submit more, we were obliged to restrict our submission to fewer than 25. To make matters worse our impact cases were not graded very highly, with only 13.3% of the submission graded 4* and 13.4% graded 3*.
The outputs from Physics & Astronomy at Sussex were very good, with 93% graded 3* or 4*. That’s a higher fraction than Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and UCL in fact, and with a Grade Point Average of 3.10. Most other departments also submitted very good outputs – not surprisingly because the UK is actually pretty good at Physics – so the output scores are very highly bunched and a small difference in GPA means a large number of places in the rankings. The impact scores, however, have a much wider dispersion, with the result that despite the relatively small percentage contribution they have a large effect on overall rankings. As a consequence, overall, Sussex Physics & Astronomy slipped down from 14th in the RAE to 34th place in the REF (based on a Grade Point Average). Disappointing to say the least, but we’re not the only fallers. In the 2008 RAE the top-rated physics department was Lancaster; this time round they are 27th.
I now find myself in a situation eerily reminiscent of that I found myself facing in Cardiff after the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, the forerunner of the REF. Having been through that experience I’m a hardened to disappointments and at least can take heart from Cardiff’s performance this time round. Spirits were very low there after the RAE, but a thorough post-mortem, astute investment in new research areas, and determined preparations for this REF have paid dividends: they have climbed to 6th place this time round. That gives me the chance not only to congratulate my former colleagues there for their excellent result but also to use them as an example for what we at Sussex have to do for next time. An even more remarkable success story is Strathclyde, 34th in the last RAE and now top of the REF table. Congratulations to them too!
Fortunately our strategy is already in hand. The new staff have already started working towards the next REF (widely thought to be likely to happen in 2020) and we are about to start a brand new research activity in experimental physics next year. We will be in a much better position to generate research impact as we diversify our portfolio so that it is not as strongly dominated by “blue skies” research, such as particle physics and astronomy, for which it is much harder to demonstrate economic impact.
I was fully aware of the challenges facing Physics & Astronomy at Sussex when I moved here in February 2013, but with the REF submission made later the same year there was little I could do to alter the situation. Fortunately the University of Sussex management realises that we have to play a long game in Physics and has been very supportive of our continued strategic growth. The result of the 2014 REF result is a setback but it does demonstrate that the stategy we have already embarked upon is the right one.
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