Reviewing the Research Excellence Framework: Government launches call for evidence

By Ben Connor, Policy Officer

The UK Government has launched a call for evidence for its review of the Research Excellence Framework, the latest in a number of consultations on higher education and research policy.

Since May’s election, the Conservative government has been determined to make its mark on the higher education and research policy landscape. The Nurse Review of the Research Councils and forthcoming creation of Research UK, the higher education green paper and proposals for the Teaching Excellence Framework, and now a review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF): policy changes have been coming thick and fast.

The government’s intention to reassess the REF was first outlined in the autumn Spending Review, and was officially launched on 16 December by Science Minister Jo Johnson. The review will be chaired by Lord Nicholas Stern, President of the British Academy, and will seek to ensure that quality-related (QR) research funding “is allocated more efficiently, offers greater rewards for excellent research, and reduces the administrative burden on institutions”.

In its current form, the REF takes place every 5-6 years, and aims to assess the quality of research produced by higher education institutions in order to inform the allocation of QR research funding. The most recent REF, undertaken by the UK’s four higher education funding bodies in 2014, saw submissions from 154 institutions under 36 subject categories for peer review by appointed panels of experts. Submissions were assessed for the quality and impact of the research, and the research environment, to be graded on a four-point scale.

So what is up for grabs in Lord Stern’s review? The terms of reference make it clear that the government is committed to maintaining the dual support system of research funding, with the REF continuing to drive the allocation of QR funding. Likewise the frequency of the REF, at 5-6 year intervals, is deemed appropriate and will be maintained.

Where the review will seek to make changes, in the Government’s own words, is to ensure that “future university research funding is allocated more efficiently, offers greater rewards for excellent research and reduces the administrative burden on institutions”. Importantly, it is emphasised that any revised system must carry the confidence of the UK academic community and other stakeholders: as science policy expert James Wilsdon writes, “the REF has become a condensation point for wider concern about the burden of audit, management and bureaucracy in academic life”.

The Stern Review therefore offers an excellent opportunity for the academic community to make heard their views on the REF. Where does it work well? What could be improved? Last week the Government launched a call for evidence as part of the review, outlining nine questions it is seeking to address. The questions are wide ranging, asking how the REF processes could be changed to assess research more efficiently and accurately; whether some elements of the REF could be reported at a more aggregate level; how institutions use the REF in decision-making and strategic planning; how interdisciplinary research could be better recognised; and what impacts the REF has on the work and behaviours of individual academics.

We will be contributing to the Royal Society of Biology’s response to the call for evidence, and are keen to hear from as wide a range of BES members as possible to inform our contribution. This is a crucial issue for the ecological research community, as it is for all UK-based academics, and we want to make sure your voice is heard.

If you’re reading this as a BES member and would like to share your views on any of the questions posed in the call for evidence, or more broadly about your experience of the REF, please get in touch with Jackie Caine, Policy Manager at

Download the call for evidence questions