Errant explanations: What is REF?

I miss the good of days of science. The days when you could write “I want to do X can I please have some money kind Sir” on a scrap of paper and then disappear into a lab for 20 years only to come out occasionally to sit for an oil painting.

Of course history is pretty good at making the “good old days” somewhat rose tinted, and not just because rose colour oil paints were cheap. So I’m not entirely convinced there was ever a period where science was funding on a “if they ask they get money” basis. I suppose I miss my own day dream of a world where I could get paid and not have to actually do any work to justify it.

But day dreams are day dreams and reality is that there is something called REF.

REF is the catchy acronym for Research Excellent Framework – a thing that the UK government use to try and work out which researchers to give money to… sort of.

In the UK we have a research budget. In 2014 this was £1.54 billion. REF’s aim is to make sure that £1.54 billion is given to institutes that are capable of using it effectively. The driving force being to avoid giving some of that £1.54 billion to universities or institutes that aren’t actually doing research properly.

What’s “properly”?

Well, in order to determine how good an institute is at research, they are required to provided evidence of their researchers research “quality”. An individual researcher isn’t assessed as such but their REF assessment and stats go with all their colleagues into one big REF application for their university or institute.

Researchers that are used for REF cases are referred to as REFable, an adjective that is much more amusing if you imagine it being said by Scooby Doo.

To be REFable has a whole host of complicated things associated with it, as you need to meet various criteria. Just to give you a flavour of the complexities of the rules, one is that you must have 4 journal papers in the last 4 years all in 4 star or higher journals. What are 4 star rated journals? Well that’s the journals they deem 4 star rated based on reading tea leaves and whether or not they like the cover art (probably).

Then there’s some other things REFable researchers need to prepare to show they are researching “properly”, all of which are then judged by a panel of experts and nebulously given a value for how “good” the research is.

Sorry for the large number of quotations, but honestly this process is a bit vague and subjective so I’m not sure I can write good without qualifying with “”.

But regardless of how vague the process, the results are declared and the institute is then judged partly by the quality of the overall REFable researcher’s output and the number of REFable researchers. They are then given money accordingly and told to please go away for another 6-7 years.

In 2014 REF cost around £250 million to conduct, which if it sounds like a stupidly large number to spend on a paperwork exercise… is because it is. The next one is in 2021 and I very much look forward to spending 2019 through 2020 trying to work out how REFable I am and if I can start getting people to refer to being REFable as having a case of REFitus which is more fitting.


If you want anything else explained in research or academia do let us know below.

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