Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

REF's Effort to Make Knowledge Visible May Have Cloudy Results

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

REF's Effort to Make Knowledge Visible May Have Cloudy Results

Article excerpt

Impact assessments will shape behaviours - but not necessarily in desired directions, argue Katherine Smith and Nasar Meer.

Mark Twain once commented that educational institutions "have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal, knowledge". If UK academics have been guilty of the latter historically, efforts to reward research "impact" can be understood as an attempt to ensure that this is no longer the case. In this respect, the intention is laudable, but the "impact" agenda has also met with fierce criticism, particularly from those who view it as part of an agenda to further marketise higher education.

The final criteria for assessing impact in the research excellence framework will reassure some of those who have raised concerns. The period in which impact can be demonstrated is relatively long (from 1993 for most subjects, even longer for architectural research); research "users" will be involved in assessments; case studies will be able to draw on changes to policies at non-governmental organisations as well as in the public and commercial spheres. There is also a quality "threshold", which means that research outputs must be deemed to be of at least "two-star" standard to qualify for inclusion. Finally, the case-study approach means that not all academics will need to demonstrate impact.

Yet there are good reasons to remain cautious, even for policy-orientated academics. First, beyond the quality threshold, impact case-study assessments will explicitly ignore differences in the quality of research outputs. This may please those who dislike the REF's approach to assessing quality, which prioritises international relevance over local. However, it also means that lower-quality research for which there is apparently concrete evidence of "impact" (policy citations, say) is liable to score more highly than higher-quality outputs for which the "impact" is more nebulous.

Second, there is little, if any, consideration of ethics in the impact assessment criteria. In theory, this means that researchers can be rewarded for evidence that their work - which may itself have been conducted ethically - is being used for ethically questionable purposes, such as research employed by companies profiting from the sale or use of harmful products like alcohol, tobacco or arms.

Another issue is that, despite a vast empirical literature demonstrating that the use of research within policy is often "symbolic" (helping to legitimise decisions that have already been taken rather than informing decisions), there appears to be no suggestion that assessors should try to consider different kinds of "use". …

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