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6 April 2020

It is strange to believe that less than a month ago, I was having conversations on whether or not REF should be delayed and at that point, most of other colleagues and I, were firmly of the opinion that a delay would not be helpful. But that was in a context where I was happily travelling on trains, going into work daily and not trying to work out if walking to the shops counted in my daily allowance of trips outside the house.

It is hard to say what the initial reaction of REF Managers and Administrators was to the news that REF deadline has been paused. After all, they were still trying to move their operations on-line, work out how to juggle child care, parental care and work commitments, and worry about friends and colleagues. In this context, the REF delay was just one more strange event in a sea of culture change.

Even before the announcement, discussions had started on potential impact of Covid-19 on research activity. The first most obvious area was impact, with the cancellation of impact activities, concerts and public engagement. It was clear at that point that there would need to be adjustments. Work was begun to start logging what these lost opportunities were. Following on came the expectation that more staff would need to put in additional requests for time lost for research, especially for clinical and health related academics.

Given this and the many other concerns and pressures beyond REF, the delay has come as a relief; one less deadline that we need to worry about. The proposal that the deadline clock has been paused and will start again when we have readjusted it is regarded as a sensible and pragmatic one. It was not just the internal pressures, but concerns were raised that external developments might be hit, such as software development to manage the REF submission, both from institutional suppliers and the REF Team.

But all the REF administrators are keen to note that REF has not stopped, the work is still on-going. The census date for staff, the date which sets the figure for how many outputs and impact case studies are needed, is to remain the same. Outputs will still need to be selected and gathering evidence for case studies is still on going

There are also some unanswered questions such as if the census date stays the same, does that mean the deadline for impact stays the same? What happens to impact events that were planned to take place, but have been cancelled, can these be rescheduled or has the opportunity been lost? Will there need to be a circumstances form for impact case studies or the deadline be extended?

Having asked colleagues at other institutions, I was struck by how much they were focussing on ways to relieve the burden on their academic colleagues. Work still needed to be undertaken, but the emphasis was on what could be undertaken centrally and by administrative staff. There are concerns about asking staff for information that at this moment is not important. For example, making clinical papers Open Access is vital, asking about dates of acceptance to meet REF audit requirements is less so. It is also that REF preparations involve a team of people, not just those in a REF office. Negotiations have been taking place internally, to work with IT Services, Libraries, HR and data teams to pull the submission together. The timescales will need to be readjusted and fitted in with competing priorities.

However, there was also real concern about REF staff on fixed term contracts, of which there is a significant proportion. Staff were concerned both that they or their teams were about to be made redundant or that contracts would now end before the REF began again. Some staff have made significant plans for life after REF, including retirement or new roles. Staff focusing on impact were already feeling particularly vulnerable, following the announcement that the pathways to impact section has been removed from research grants.

REF Managers are not busy ripping up their timetables to submission, what they are doing is looking at what can moved, reviewing at what tasks can be done by central teams and ensuring that momentum is continuing. In addition, they are thinking about what changes might be needed to the REF submission process to ensure that it can be undertaken fairly and effectively. They are looking forward to contributing to the consultation on what changes might be needed, where hopefully the focus will be on reducing burden.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the REF restarting, not because of REF, but because it will be a welcome indication that life has started to return to some degree of normality.