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Jen Harrison

24 July 2023, 8:04 UTC Share

REF 2028 – breathing new life into policy impact?

Some of us may still be catching our breath from the last time around, but the starting pistol for REF 2028 has officially been fired.
In June, the Future Research Assessment Programme (FRAP) – represented by the research funding councils for all four nations in the UK – published its initial proposals.
As we all digest what the proposals mean for the future of research impact, this blog post explores what it all means for research impact on policy – and specifically, whether the proposals allow us to think differently about how we recognise and reward the positive impact of research on people, places and the planet.
At Showrunner Communications, we’re firm believers that academic research and expertise has a vital role to play within the policymaking process, and in contributing to lasting social change. REF certainly isn’t the only reason why academics might want to engage with policy, but it’s undeniably an important driver given the level of funding and attention it attracts.
So it’s important that we get it right.

Here’s three reasons why we’re hopeful that the REF 2028 proposals could spell good news for policy impact.

1. More focus on engagement
One of the FRAP’s most revelatory proposals is the decision to rename the impact element as ‘Engagement and Impact’.
This important because a common criticism levelled at previous REF exercises has been that it asks us to think in terms of an imagined formula for influencing policy change:

strong research effective engagement with policymakers = policy impact

Anyone who has tried putting this into practice will know that the process is rarely, if ever, linear. Instead, the relationship between research and policy is highly nuanced, often ambiguous, and almost always subject to the vagaries of the policymaking process itself. As the distinguished sociologist Professor Stephen Ball famously wrote:

‘Policy making is inevitably a process of bricolage: a matter of borrowing and copying bits and pieces of ideas from elsewhere, drawing upon and amending locally tried and tested approaches, cannibalising theories, research, trends and fashions and not infrequently flailing around for anything at all that looks as though it might work.’

The proposed shift in emphasis towards engagement for REF 2028 creates the possibility of viewing routes to policy impact more holistically, embracing rather than ignoring their complexity. Further, it addresses another unintended consequence of previous REF exercises (explained brilliantly here by the Royal Society of Edinburgh), which encouraged institutions to value observable impact (for example, recommendations accepted by a select committee) over equally valuable, but less measurable, forms of engagement (for example, contribution to public debate).

2. Impact still matters
The Engagement and Impact element of the next REF aims to draw on what some view as the best of previous exercises. Like REF 2021, impact will constitute 25% of the overall score for a given Unit of Assessment (UoA), demonstrating a continuing commitment that the fruits of publicly funded research should benefit society.
And like REF 2014, we will see a return of an impact narrative alongside individual impact case studies. This narrative aims to give institutions space to explain how they go about maximising the impact of their research, and the broader societal benefits it has been possible to achieve.
But this time, the accompanying statement will account for a much bigger slice of the pie. Depending on the size of the submission, this could be somewhere between 20% and 50% of the overall impact score. (Side note: don’t be deceived, the peculiarities of the REF scoring process mean that impact case studies continue to be highly valuable – for some institutions, a single impact case study in REF 2028 could be worth ten times a single research output!).
For the policy engagement pros among us, the reintroduction of the impact narrative may be a welcome step. Alongside creating an important incentive for institutions to invest in supporting policy engagement, just as importantly it allows them to showcase different and more distributed forms of research impact. For instance, this might include circumstances in which institutions have successfully brokered relationships with policymakers relevant to an area of research strength, creating opportunities for multiple academics to engage.

3. Value is placed on the contribution of research-enabling staff
In a significant departure from previous exercises, REF 2028 proposals place a far greater emphasis on ‘capturing the valuable contributions of a wider range of researchers and research-enabling staff’.
This gives overdue recognition to the contribution of a vast number of professional services colleagues working in universities across the land, who each play a vital role in creating the conditions for policy engagement to thrive. As James Coe for Wonkhe put it, research is in essence a ‘team sport’. Therefore, it is hugely positive to see the REF moving away from what has historically been a ‘hero’ model of achieving research impact, to a game plan that recognises you need every player on the pitch.
The removal of the requirement for impact case studies to be underpinned by a 2* (at least) research output will also help here, clearing the path for more authentic and organic forms of engagement with policy to emerge.

Clearly, there’s a long way to go (a consultation over the summer is just the beginning), but we’re cautiously optimistic about the potential of the REF 2028 proposals to change how we understand and reward policy impact in future. Now, the task lies with us to make the most of it.

Jen Harrison, Senior Associate At Showrunner Communications

Jen is part of the policy impact team at Showrunner Communications – an agency that builds reputations, relationships and influence for organisations that support people and places. Showrunner specialises in helping academics to achieve policy impact with their work, running training programmes, coaching sessions and proactive public affairs programmes. Over the past year Showrunner has worked with universities including Durham, Exeter, Essex and Manchester Metropolitan, running over 30 training workshops and supporting over 150 academics to engage with policymakers.

Please do get in touch with Jen to talk about how Showrunner could support your institution.

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