Impact and the next REF: what do we know?

Are you an ‘exceptional’ person with a ‘good understanding of the principles of the REF emerging from the Stern review’? If so, you may want to polish your CV now. Hefce, the body in charge of shaping the REF2021, has just advertised for the four main panel chairs for its next research assessment exercise.

Mind you – that business about ‘a good understanding’ is a bit tricky. We do know what Lord Stern recommended after reviewing the last REF. We also know that Hefce’s consultation on the REF2021, launched last December, is now closed. And that the results are due out in July or August – that’s how long it takes to digest over 370 responses.

So does that mean that researchers eager to start writing their impact case studies can hope to see the full ‘guidance on submissions’ for the REF2021 soon? “Oh”, laughs the friendly woman who picks up the phone at the Hefce media office, “that’s way off!” More than a year, in fact – the full guidance is not expected until mid-2018.

Cue a collective rise in blood pressure among participants in my impact training sessions. “How are we supposed to write our impact case studies if we don’t know what the rule book says?” they demand, not unreasonably. Hefce’s answer, I’m afraid, does little to reassure the anxious: “The only thing they can do is wait.”

But all is not lost – for there are quite a lot of things we do know, with at least a reasonable degree of certainty. Here’s a potted summary.

Impact, according to Lord Stern, was “one of the success stories of the REF2014”. So there’s not a shade of doubt that once again, it will play its part in 2021.

Changes we may see, if Lord Stern’s recommendations are followed, include:

•       Introduction of “institutional level”, interdisciplinary case studies. If this leaves you scratching your head, you’re not alone, as Hefce’s REF Manager Kim Hackett readily admits. She has floated the possibility of a pilot exercise to help everyone gain clarity.

A loosening of the “overly mechanistic” link between outputs and impact, meaning that case studies could be linked to a body of work as well as a broad range of research outputs. This would be welcome news for anyone in the Brian Cox mould: people who achieve widespread awareness of aspects of science (or history, or any other academic field) through public engagement without being able to link this to any particular set of outputs.

•       More emphasis in the REF guidance on impacts which are not socio-economic.

•       Broader inclusion of impacts on curricula or teaching within or across disciplines.

•       Admission of impact case studies submitted to the REF2014 which have new impact evidence. No doubt this would be good news for many: during the REF2014 period, my colleagues and I saw a lot of case studies which had excellent potential, but were still so embryonic in their impacts that their authors could not hope to achieve those coveted four stars.

Much of the rest of the rule book may see only minor changes, or none at all – not least because some who responded to the Hefce consultation pleaded for consistency with the 2014 process.

At this stage, of course, the points above do remain speculative. But to my mind, the worst thing anyone can do is sit on their hands until summer 2018 because “it’s not worth working on our impact cases until we know what the guidelines say.”

It is eminently clear that we are already in the middle of the impact assessment period for the REF2021. And that means that teams need to identify their strongest impact case contenders and start developing them now if they want any chance of reaping 3 or 4* glory.

If you don’t know how best to go about this, we can help you clear the thicket and accompany you in developing your case studies as far as you need us to –  in workshops or individual coaching sessions, at your university or remotely via Skype. Just call us for a no-strings chat to find out more.