Protecting and Growing Research – looking back at REF 2014

19 March 2015

‘Protect and grow research’ is one of the Council’s three key messages to politicians and policy makers in the run up to the General Election and the CSR to follow. Here, Patrick Callaghan, Professor and Head of School of Health Sciences, The University of Nottingham, reflects on what the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), a major UK-wide assessment of university research, mean for nursing, midwifery and AHPs.

The results of the REF are encouraging for the state of research in Unit of Assessment 3 (UoA3) that includes the professions that the Council of Deans represents. REF assessed the quality of research outputs (published papers), impact and environment. The 94 submissions represented 2,748 full-time equivalent staff, 508 of whom were classified as early career researchers. The number of research papers assessed was 10,358 and 351 impact case studies were submitted.

Overall, 81% of research was rated as world leading (31%) or internationally excellent (50%) and this betters the national average by 5%. The number of outputs rated 4* was on a par with the national average and around 47% of impact was rated world leading; three points ahead of the national average. On quality of the research environment 50.1% was rated world leading and that puts UoA3 almost 6% ahead of the national average. We have seen the number of doctoral degrees awarded rise by 18% in the previous five years and the amount of externally secured grant income increase by 4% in the same period. In sum, UoA3 bettered the national average on every measure.

Nursing and AHP research had outstanding impact in diabetes, arthritis, ageing/older adult care, infection control, maternity care, nutrition, wound care, palliative care and rehabilitation. Outputs of note were in the areas of stroke rehabilitation, exercise prescription, falls and fall prevention, palliative care, self-management, breast feeding and quality and safety in acute and community settings. There is much to celebrate in these results, but, I feel compelled to sound a strongly cautionary note.

Across REF as a whole, among the top five universities for overall research quality there is no nursing or AHP provision. Also, only one university with a nursing and AHP submission was in the top twelve for quality of research impact. Nursing and AHP professions submitted fewer than 40% of their eligible staff; the 60% of staff not submitted, so-called ‘REFugees’ has undermined the intensity of nursing and AHP research. The composition of UoA3 was extended to include dentistry and pharmacy, professions that the Council of Deans does not represent generally, so these results are not ours alone. Most universities made a single submission, that is, nursing, midwifery and allied health was included with pharmacy and dentistry, so we are unable to unpick what contribution the main professions that the Council of Deans embody made to the overall unit results. Nevertheless, the results have significance for our members.

The primary purpose of REF 2014, like all research assessment exercises before it, is to decide the allocation of QR – quality related – income that will flow to universities in the next five years. The challenge for universities will be to decide how much of this finds its way to nursing, midwifery and allied health professional research. This task will be easier in the select few universities that submitted separate submissions. The QR investment will influence strongly the nature of research that occurs in the next five years and the number of people doing this research. Likewise, the fact that 60% of staff were not returned may have contractual implications for these staff. What seems clear is that universities are likely to re-focus their research attention to high performing individuals, units and groups, and shedding those that are generating little in the way of research value with REF 2020 in mind.

What of the future for REF? Well another exercise in 2020 seems likely. Given the huge undertaking and expense associated with REF submissions: 154 universities, 1,911 submissions comprising 52,061 academic staff, 191,150 outputs and 6,975 impact case studies, one can only hope for a more streamlined approach. I suspect we will see greater attention to quality using published metrics such as citations, more emphasis on papers with international collaborators and using H indices or similar in assessments of quality. I suspect we may also see more attention to the number of early career researchers and equality issues as universities and funders seek to improve the visibility of women in research through initiatives like Athena Swan.

Looking at REF in the wider policy context, the results demonstrate the need for the overall levels of research funding to be protected in the upcoming comprehensive spending review to grow capacity and make the case for specific investment targeted at those areas where REF results provide evidence of excellent patient benefit.

3 key messages

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