The REF impact agenda builds the right incentives into the system - a view from the REF Panel

PraxisUnico board member and Director of Academic Liaison at GSK, Malcolm Skingle, describes his involvement in the REF assessment from his perspective as a user of university research outputs. Malcolm runs a team in the UK and the US that negotiate and expedite research collaboration agreements with universities around the world on behalf of GSK scientists. He has worked at the interface between academe and industry for 20 years.

I agreed to join the REF assessment exercise because I believe that if you are an academic taking public purse funding, you should at least consider the impact that your research may bring to public good.  Obviously not all funded research will result in impact, but the very fact that academics know that part of the HEFCE funding is for impact, and not just their publications, has already changed culture within academia.  The academics are now looking to engage with the users of their research.  This might be industry, the health service or indeed the regulators.

This is the first HEFCE assessment exercise that I have been involved with.  And I have to say upfront, that I have found the process to be transparent and fair across the panels. There has been a high level of diligence and rigour throughout the whole process.

?Main Panel A had quite a broad remit and covered medical, biological, agricultural, veterinary and food sciences research.  In the early stages of the investment exercise, the academics on the panel were quite apprehensive, thinking that it would be difficult to assess impact across such a broad range of disciplines.  This in fact was not the case, and the quality of the impact studies made it a pleasure to assess them.

The assessment panels had both user representatives and international representatives.  It was relatively easy for us 'Users' to be objective as we do not receive funds from HEFCE.  My primary role on Main Panel A was to work with the chairman and the other panellists to ensure that there was parity in the assessment process across the sub panels that reported into Main Panel A.  We did this by undertaking a couple of calibration exercises early on in the process to ensure that panellists were scoring in a consistent manner; and then by attending sub-panels as an observer but offering advice when there was any debate on specific impact case studies.

Universities submitted case studies outlining the research that they had undertaken and the impact that it had.  These were 4 page documents so not too onerous to assess.

The panels reviewed them as a joint effort between the academic and user panel members.  The impacts were graded on a scale of 1 – 4 with 4*, outstanding, being the highest grade.

Each impact was assessed for reach and significance.  It is true to say that all of the user and international panellists were impressed by the breadth of the expertise provided by the universities.

The impact studies were incredibly wide ranging, from cures for rare diseases through to changes on health policies across the globe.  I am really excited that the impact case studies will be published next year.  The politicians, and indeed the public at large, will be able to see why funding academic science is a good thing.

?There were many REF impact case studies which clearly showed how research had lead to improvements in health and to economic benefits.  There were the more obvious examples such as:

• Commercial spin outs creating new biotech and other businesses

• New treatments and medicines, significantly decreasing mortality and leading to considerable savings to the NHS

• Research that lead to better clinical guidelines and quality of healthcare

• There are examples of international health interventions such as global vaccine programmes

• Research leading to earlier and more accurate diagnosis of disease

• Advances in healthcare in developing counties

• Raising public awareness and debate around health issues such as breast feeding, obesity, alcohol consumption and smoking

?The medical and life sciences research covered by main Panel A also had benefits well beyond the health sector, for example:

• Psychology and neuroscience research covered by Main Panel A impacted on criminal justice system; informing police, prosecution and prisoner rehabilitation

• Food science and agricultural research addressed the basic needs for adequate, safe and nutritious food within the developing world.

• Ecology research helped to protect endangered species or eco systems both in the UK and around the world.

In summary, I have to say that I have been pretty impressed by the REF evaluation exercise.  The REF has got all academics thinking about the impact of the research and packaging it in such a way that the impact can be articulated to all.  It demonstrates a very clear pathway from funding basic research, and turning basic quality science into very real benefits for industry, health and indeed the quality of life.

I think the REF impact agenda frightened some academics in the early stages of the process because it was a new and untried form of assessment, but I think that they eventually embraced it and now see the value of the exercise.

In my opinion, the impact agenda builds the right incentives into the system thus rewarding universities for working in partnership with industry.  This helps makes the UK an attractive place for global industries like the pharmaceutical industry, to invest in R&D.

One of the international members on Main Panel A, at one of the early Main Panel A Evaluation meetings, said that the UK would be the envy of the world if we got the impact assessment exercise right.  Having read and evaluated many of the impact case studies I have to say that I think we have got it right and I agree with him.  Other nations will be looking at the positive outputs from this exercise and I am sure that others will copy.