Mammoth UK research assessment concludes as leaders eye radical shake up

Researchers across the United Kingdom are celebrating or commiserating this week as universities receive the results of a years-long research-assessment exercise that dictates how much government funding they will get over the coming years.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is one of the world's most comprehensive research assessments — many nations look to it as an example of how to review research. But its leaders are already looking at how they might change the process.

The 2021 REF results suggest that more than 40% of UK research is world-leading. In an analysis of the results by the Times Higher Education (THE), the country’s biggest research universities rank among the highest-scoring institutions overall. The top five are all located in southern England (see ‘Institution rankings top 10’).

Reviewers also judge institutions on the impact of their work in the wider world and the standard of their research environment. Scores for each element carry a different weight in a formula that dictates the size of each institution’s share of the multibillion-pound pot for public research funding. Currently, the score for research outputs holds the biggest sway, accounting for 60% of the final mark.

The UK government is yet to announce how much money will be up for grabs, and how it will be divided between different institutions. The results of the previous exercise, released in 2014, guided £14 billion (US$17.1 billion) of university research funding.

“[The results] respresent an exceptional achievement for UK university research and demonstrate the huge return on public investment in research,” says Steven Hill, director of research at the funding body Research England.

Changing priorities

Those who administer the research-assessment exercise — the UK’s higher education funding councils — have a history of changing the rules each time to reflect priorities and to help stop institutions from gaming the process to boost their scores. Ahead of the 2014 results, the exercise was broadened to include a measure of research impact. Researchers now submit case studies to demonstrate the economic, social and policy contributions of their work — a move that has been copied by other countries seeking to widen their approach to research assessment.

The latest change included a rule that institutions must submit for assessment the work of everyone who does research as part of their job. Previously, some institutions put forward only top performers in an attempt to skew ratings in their favour. As a result of the change, the latest exercise saw a 46% increase in the number of staff submitted for assessment compared with the previous one.

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