25 February 2011

Researchers to be assessed on engagement

Starting a new project – for a university with the sense to realise that some editorial input would beef up some case studies – I had to check out on the plans for the Research Excellence Framework. (REF has taken over from the Research Assessment Exercise as a way of judging academic researchers before handing out money.) The next exercise continues the pursuit of evidence of ‘impact’, the idea that research doesn’t just sit on a shelf but has some tangible effect, economic or otherwise, on society.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the people behind REF, conducted a pilot run of impact case studies last year. It recently put on its website Research Excellence Framework impact pilot exercise: Findings of the expert panels a “report to the UK higher education funding bodies by the chairs of the impact pilot panels”.

While much of the report is about the usual things you would think of as impact, it also mentions “public engagement”. It says that in the prototype case studies that universities put forward “Panels received a number of case studies of benefits arising from engaging the public with research and we consider that this should be included as an appropriate kind of ‘impact’ in the REF.”

This prompted the report’s authors to recommend that the REF exercise “should include benefits arising from engaging the public with research.” It then went on to flesh this out with the observation that the case studies should:

“Show a distinctive contribution of the department’s research to that public engagement activity.”


“Make a case for the benefits arising from the public engagement activity. This must go beyond showing how the research was disseminated.”

Explicit statements like this are important. Researchers may pay lip service to the idea that they communicate their work to the public, the source of their research funds after all, but they will quickly forget about this in their pursuit of the next paper. But academics are also good at playing the game. Tell them that the minister for science is interested in spin-out companies – that really happened a few years ago – and they will suddenly list all of the businesses that they started, regardless of how successful they were. adding public engagement to the mix may be yet another box to tick, but at least it draws the academics’ attention to something that it is all too easy to overlook.

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