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27 January 2020

Had they been published at a different time Amartya Sen’s 1981 book Poverty and Famines and his book (with Jean Drèze) Hunger and Public Action (1989) could have been used as key references for a bold and adventurous impact case study for REF 2021. They evidence an innovative body of underpinning research that led not just to changes in concept, philosophy and analysis, but also to significant policy and socio-economic change.

In these books, Drèze and Sen broadened the understanding of hunger – encompassing social as well as biological disadvantages – and advanced the innovative concepts of ‘entitlements’ and ‘capabilities’ to describe individuals’ relationships to the supply of food and their experience of well-being. They challenged ideas that famine was caused by a lack of availability of food, instead arguing that famine is driven by a lack of ‘entitlements’; by being unable to afford food. They highlighted the importance of democracy in preventing famine and also argued for the public provision of goods and services to combat famine and chronic hunger. These books did not stand alone: they built upon previous research by both authors to suggest policies for preventing famine and to refine the concepts used to understand the phenomena.

Together, the bold ideas and body of underpinning research that contributed to these books have led to undoubted and important impact. They have not only changed public understanding and perceptions about the causes of and policies towards hunger but have also shaped the work of key organisations, including national governments, NGOs, the United Nations, and many international organisations. Their impacts span socio-economic system, policy, institutes and beyond.

For REF 2021 we hope institutions will be similarly bold and adventurous with the impact case studies they submit.

A more recent example is seen in the body of innovative operations research underpinning the delivery of the US Broadcast Incentive Auction to meet the ever-increasing demand for greater and better mobile services. From proof of concept to direct application in the auction, the research undertaken by the Federal Communications Commission and the Smith Institute (had it been undertaken by a university) would similarly have led to a vibrant impact case study.

As the Smith Institute puts it, ‘in our highly-connected world, the need for mobile services has exploded’.[1] As more and more people demand greater and better mobile services this in turn increases demand for more spectrum to provide such services.

The incentive auction was the most complicated spectrum repacking exercise ever undertaken, pioneering the purchasing of spectrum from TV broadcasters to resell it to wireless providers. The technical challenges involved in an auction of this kind required innovative techniques in operations research to deliver. It raised nearly $20 billion in revenue and saved an estimated £200 million in relocation costs for many TV stations. The work has also been awarded the prestigious INFORMS Edelman Award for Achievement in Advanced Analytics, Operations Research, and Management Science. Consequently, this innovative body of research has led to revolutionary impacts both economically and technologically, with further impact likely to be of benefit to all mobile services users and providers.

We have deliberately used examples from outside REF submissions because we want to illustrate ideas of impact that go beyond past, rather limited interpretations of its meaning. The examples are from very different subjects but they both relate a body of work to changing understandings about issues of real importance to lives.

The REF exercise offers institutions the opportunity to showcase exciting, novel, and adventurous impacts that have been founded in pioneering research. UK research can only benefit from having at hand impact case studies highlighting the full dynamism of the changes that research is enabling.

Institutions were perhaps cautious in REF 2014. Despite the exercise’s broad definition of impact, submitted case studies often interpreted impact rather narrowly. The guidelines for REF 2021 have made clearer the definition of impact as both broad and deep, for example by emphasising the wide definition of research that can underpin impact, including a body of research produced over a number of years. Impact does not solely arise from an individual research output.

The relationship between research and impact is not necessarily linear and it is not necessarily direct. There is no simple route from one research output to one impact. More often, significant impact comes from a body of work effecting a change in understanding. For REF 2021, therefore, submitted impact case studies can be underpinned by a body of research and a range of research outputs. Institutions should think more broadly not only about the types of impact research has had, but also about the different bodies of research that have been the foundation of strong impact case studies.

There is ample room for a wide variety of impacts to be submitted to REF 2021. The very best impact submissions will likely showcase the full breadth and depth of impacts possible from the equally broad and deep range of research being undertaken in institutions, and the increased weighting for impact in the exercise will appropriately reward and incentivise further this activity.

Key changes have been made to the way that staff will be submitted as part of the assessment, which should better support institutions in investing in the right range of research activity for them. Far from risking homogenising research activity, as some appear to have argued, these changes will give greater freedom to universities to pursue research of different kinds.   

The new requirement to return all staff who have a significant responsibility for research is about promoting inclusion, about addressing the negative consequences for staff associated with exclusion in previous exercises, and about encouraging the presentation of a rounder picture of research activity. But it is also about underlining the move away from the focus on individuals, and their related publications and other outputs. Instead REF 2021 will focus on the research produced by the group of staff – in a department or school, for example – that make up the submitting unit. Requiring a fixed number of outputs for the unit overall, rather than a set number for each researcher individually, will give institutions flexibility in building submissions. It will also better recognise the different lives and personal situations of individual researchers.

This change of focus in the exercise is intended to provide real benefits for research, including in giving more space for institutions to pursue longer-term and higher-risk research that can bring high rewards. The shift in emphasis to the unit rather than the individual will also better support and reward collaboration, while the ability to submit outputs produced by staff when employed by the institution, even where they have since left, will increase incentives to continuing investing in a sustainable research environment.

But to truly realise these benefits institutions must join with the spirit of the exercise and resist using the number of outputs submitted for a given researcher as a marker of status. Neither the names of staff, nor the number of outputs attributed to them, will be published by the funding bodies, and we would encourage institutions to follow this lead.

As has been outlined, the changes that have been made to this exercise are designed to provide support for both excellent research and for its impact. One further area in which this is crucial is for inter- and multidisciplinary research. Analysis from REF 2014 highlights the sheer volume of impact case studies that were underpinned by interdisciplinary research, even though they were submitted through a particular discipline. This underlines the case to ensure its submission and assessment in REF 2021 is fully supported, and that such research is properly recognised, appreciated and rewarded.

There have been important measures introduced into the REF to achieve this aim, including the appointment of a specialist advisory panel to guide and oversee the assessment processes in place, and the creation of a new interdisciplinary role on the panels. These interdisciplinary advisers, appointed to the main and sub-panels, in meeting together across the discipline-based panel structure will provide a new facet to the assessment approach. A facet that can ensure the material is reviewed by those with the right expertise to review it.

So institutions should feel encouraged to submit the excellent interdisciplinary research that is currently being undertaken in the UK and confident of its fair and equal assessment. As with impact, it will be of great value for the national research profile to have the bold, the adventurous and the diverse fairly represented within it.

We trust that these changes taken together will mark a new and productive phase in fostering and supporting the deep, powerful, creative and high impact research in which the UK has been so strong and can be still stronger.  




An abridged version of this piece was originally published by Times Higher Education on 22 January 2020.