REF 2021: How can industry help make an impact?

15 November 2017

When the Research Excellence Framework (REF) ­– the successor to the Research Assessment Exercise – was introduced in 2014, the level of impact research had to society was a relatively new consideration to scientists.

Now, as we consider the development of REF 2021, which will evaluate UK research between 2014 and 2020, the impact of a study is becoming more important to REF panellists.

REF Manager Kim Hackett, speaking at a Westminster Higher Education Forum on 14 November, said that the weighting of impact for research will increase from 20% to 25% for REF 2021.

Malcolm Skingle, Director of Academic Liaison at GSK, welcomed the change, believing that the inclusion of impact in the REF has encouraged academic collaboration with industry – many of whom may have been sceptical of industrial research.

‘Every academic should think about the output of their research,’ he said, explaining that – in his experience – once working with industry, academics realise that the quality of scientific research in industry is generally quite high; particularly in the pharmaceutical and automotive sectors.

Skingle highlighted that commercial revenue for universities from collaborative research with industry has recently overtaken that for contract research.

Industry and universities working together is also mutually beneficial for companies. Industry ‘needs to tap into academic minds for lateral thinking to move our science forward,’ Skingle said.

Assessing impact was one of the problems noted by Lord Stern’s independent review of REF 2014 – Building on Success and Learning for Experience. Another was interdisciplinary research (IDR), with critics noting the lack of clarity through the application process as potentially off-putting.

Lisa Mooney, a panel member of the REF Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel, said that the academic community ‘lacked confidence on how IDR would be viewed’.

As a result, submissions with IDR were not a common occurrence for REF 2014, Mooney explained, suggesting that incomplete data on assessment and general success were also obstacles to encouraging more IDR applications.

While teams with a variety of backgrounds are the norm in industry, Skingle said, it is only now that academic groups are realising the benefits of this. Perhaps this is where industry can lead by example.

By Georgina Hines

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