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Why the REF matters

Dr Stuart Fancey, SFC’s Director of Research and Innovation, looks at the part the REF plays in supporting and developing the quality of Scottish research.

Today sees the publication of the results of REF 2021, the periodic assessment of the quality of research undertaken in UK universities. It is also an occasion to celebrate all that is best in university research.

REF 2021 logo and images of students

This has been a massive community effort and, as the excitement of the results sinks in, I would like to acknowledge the contributions made by a huge variety of people. I am also proud that the Scottish Funding Council has been part of the constructive and collaborative relationship between the four UK funding councils that has supported REF 2021.

The REF first saw light of day in 1986 when it was known as the Research Selectivity Exercise. It has also been known as the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) which allowed the Herald to use the headline ‘RAE of Sunshine’ when reporting the Scottish results in 2008. The fact that it has had three names during its 36-year history reflects one of the great benefits of what we now call the Research Excellence Framework (REF); it is a process which has developed and improved over time, reflecting the experience of those who have taken part in it. A Future Research Assessment Programme is already underway, and my thanks to all who have contributed to the consultation phase of this.

For researchers, universities, funding bodies and others with a stake in the REF, the publication of its results is important and exciting. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on why the REF matters.

The first thing to say is that the REF matters because research matters. By undertaking exploration, discovery, and innovation we are investing in creativity, resilience and progression. We share a better knowledge of ourselves and the world and we can understand the possibilities, both good and bad, of the future. We are more economically sound, and we are stronger as a society.

As in the rest of the UK, a key factor behind Scotland’s success in research is the dual support system. This combines the competitive grant funding of organisations like UKRI (UK Research and Innovation), charities and commercial investors with the stable, long term block grants provided by the Scottish Funding Council that allow universities to develop and explore ideas to the point where they can be tested with those partners’ support. But resources are finite and so we must focus our limited resources on excellent research. For that reason, SFC’s research funding is predominantly driven by the REF’s assessment of quality.

The REF also matters because international research is a highly competitive endeavour and Scotland can only retain its historic standing in the field of research and discovery by sustaining continual improvement in quality. We need to stay within that virtuous circle whereby research excellence attracts, inspires and retains the best talent as well as high levels of external funding. There is no doubt in my mind that the REF drives research quality, and feedback gathered from institutions after REF 2014 supports this belief.

Studies have also shown how the impact element of the REF has contributed to a culture of wider engagement and helped to create the types of partnerships we see here in Scotland in our Innovation Centres and in our international collaborations towards global development goals.

Diversity matters too, and the REF now has an important effect in this regard. Its Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel ensures the representativeness of the REF expert panels. Crucially, it also goes beyond this into the development of guidance and criteria to identify equality and diversity considerations in submissions.

In conclusion, the REF matters because it is an essential tool for accountability and information; it demonstrates the outcome of public investment in research and helps to make the case for future investment. And it goes beyond this into creating pride in Scotland’s research standing in the wider world. It values and promotes diversity, and it recognises talent and excellence where it finds them.

Whatever form it evolves into in the future, the REF will have a place in our success as a nation of discovery and enlightenment.

Dr Stuart Fancey

Dr Stuart Fancey, Director of Research and Innovation, Scottish Funding Council - 12 May 2022