Brain dump | What Next for Public Engagement and the REF?

Today, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) ran a workshop in London about the future of public engagement in the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Sarah from Beltane’s core team and Dawn Smith, Edinburgh Napier’s Public Engagement Officer, went along. This post is Sarah’s brain dump!

1/ Response so far to the Stern Review proposals

Feedback received by HEFCE so far indicates that not everything Lord Stern proposed will attract agreement from universities.

The proposal to include all staff in REF 2021 looks like it could be very complex in practice, and there is a feeling by some that institution-level impact case studies, on top of individual Unit of Assessment ones, are not likely to be worth the effort.

There is more agreement about impacts not having to be tied to specific research outputs, and about moving the impact template content into the environment section.

2/ HEFCE need examples of previously disqualified impact examples

In order to broaden the scope of REF-able impacts, HEFCE (Steven Hill) would like examples of what examples fell victim to the rules for REF 2014.

3/ It should be possible to standardise more

Although REF panels are still going to need autonomy, it should still be possible to tighten up definitions and guidelines (e.g. what is meant by ‘public engagement’; what is the minimum acceptable standard of impact evidence). As well as some good examples of impact being genuinely excluded in 2014, others were unnecessarily excluded because guidelines were misinterpreted.

4/ Learning from REF 2014

You will still have REF 2014 assessors in your institution – speak to them! They can’t tell you detail but they can speak generally, and a lot will be relevant to REF 2021.

The story of the impact case study is still going to be essential – even strong evidence isn’t enough on its own. But evidence (both quantitative and qualitative) also needs to be better for REF 2021, and this time there is no excuse – we know this REF is coming!

Case studies that were strong on public engagement in 2014 also tended to be strong on other types (e.g. commercial).  Don’t assume it’s one or the other.

Case study narratives in 2014 tended to be one or more of: enlightenment/inspiration (the comfort zone, for sure); social innovation; social action/capacity-building in communities. Would expect more narrative types within disciplines in 2021.

There was very little evidence of truly co-produced research for REF 2014. This is okay, up to a point – engagement at other stages of research and levels of involvement should not necessarily be viewed as ‘bad’. But there is no excuse now for not engaging in a cutting-edge, professional way, whether this is at the end of your research or the very beginning.

5/ What to do now

There is currently a consultation open on Stern’s recommendations. Universities are responding, as is the NCCPE (latter specifically on public engagement). Probably best to check with your uni what’s happening in the first instance.

Tomorrow, the NCCPE is due to publish its review of the 2014 REF impact case studies, which point the way to potential improvements for REF 2021. You’ll able to get it from from their website website. Give it a read!