In the run-up to November 2013, universities across the UK prepared submissions for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014. For the first time, this included an assessment of the impact, or wider societal benefits, resulting from research. This mechanism for examining impacts from previous UK-led research complements the Research Councils UK's requirements for researchers to describe how they will facilitate impact from future research.
Having evaluated the submission process of the impact element of REF 2014, we found evidence that the REF has incentivised universities to be more focused on their contribution to society beyond academia. We also found that academics and institutions identified benefits from putting a spotlight on impact. Together with the broader impact agenda, the inclusion of impact as a component of the REF is leading to a cultural shift in the academic sector (Note 1).
Universities had to submit institutional impact strategies in the form of templates, alongside specific examples of impact presented as case studies. There were both benefits and challenges associated with undertaking this process for the first time. Benefits included:
- the ability to identify and understand impact
- broader strategic thinking about impact
- increased recognition of individuals undertaking impact activities
- the opportunity to review and reaffirm relationships with external stakeholders.
However, there was as much diversity of views and attitudes within universities as there was between them regarding this new assessment of impact. We also found that the cultural shift was more visible in staff responsible for managing institutional preparations for REF 2014 than in faculty staff. Overall, one in eight survey respondents noted no benefit from engaging in the process. But regardless of such diverse views within institutions, universities are changing their practices. New strategies have been adopted at institutional, departmental or faculty level to maximise and evidence the impact of current and future research. There is a recognition that impact needs to be thought about from the outset and throughout the research life-cycle.
Meanwhile, academics did voice their concern over challenges posed by the impact component of REF 2014. For example, some expressed concern that it may have implications for the type of research undertaken at UK universities. The specific issue here is whether applied research will be promoted over basic, 'blue skies' research. A balance of basic and applied research is needed, but what the correct balance is and whether that has been achieved is unclear.
While the definition of impact used by REF is broad, there are certain activities that are not included, such as public engagement and impact on teaching in the home institution. In addition, some types of impact are harder to claim due to difficulties in providing appropriate supporting evidence, including where findings are commercially sensitive. The case studies, academics point out, are therefore not fully representative of the range of impacts occurring across the entire university sector. However, the REF was not intended to be an inclusive exercise, but a mechanism to provide examples of impacts from UK research.
So there are signs of change, as a result of REF 2014, where universities now focus more on the societal impacts of the research that they produce. To ensure the sustainability of a new culture of impact it will be necessary to engage with all stakeholders to create an understanding, value and buy-in. Our evaluation shows the divergence in views and attitudes towards impact and as a result also highlights the need to address this to ensure the culture shift is maintained.
Catriona Manville is a senior analyst at RAND Europe in Cambridge and Jonathan Grant is director of the King's Policy Institute and Professor of Public Policy at King's College London.
- Manville, C. et al. 2013. Preparing impact submissions for REF 2014: An evaluation, Findings and observations. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation. RR-727-HEFCE.
This commentary originally appeared on Higher Education Funding Council for England Blog on March 26, 2015. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.