Preparing for the big day

REF probably means little or nothing to scientists around the world, unless they work in Britain. This is the final week, prior to the preliminary announcements of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) “assessment outcomes”, which “will inform the selective allocation of research funding” and “provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks“. Are you REFable or a REFugee? asks THE editor John Gill. He would probably classify me to the latter category 🙂 Yet, Lord Stern of Brent, President of the British Academy and Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society have raised questions:

Has what was designed as an instrument of quality assessment become an institution that risks stifling the excellence it was intended to foster?

Have well-intentioned but imperfectly designed frameworks led to wasteful and distorting behaviours, by academics and their universities?

When John Allen and I asked very similar questions, we lost our positions at Queen Mary University of London. Stefan Grimm’s death and his post-mortem message to his colleagues have summarised the present state of affairs in the UK academy. “The strongest reason for retiring is that I no longer feel that I work in a university” says an anonymous academic, “today, of course, universities are businesses, with decisions increasingly being made on commercial grounds”. It doesn’t seem to matter that this way of going about is stupid.

“One of the grand rituals of British academic life is about to reach its climax.” Thus, starts his commentary Derek Sayer (resonating with the title of this post). The exclusion of several of his colleagues in history at Lancaster University led Derek Sayer to take the unusual step of appealing against his inclusion in the REF. His appeal was not upheld.
Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 10.07.12 PM

I have posted twice the poem “Addition” written in 1897 by Κ. Καβάφης as a cultural contribution below Times Higher Education articles describing the dire consequences for those who do not meet the REF-inspired metrics (or of madness if you prefer). This is why I fail to resonate with proposals that wish to turn the academy into a metric-driven machine, in my view it will lead to the Golden Boys thriving like a zombie fungus. I would rather agree with Curt Rice:

What follows is my answer to Cavafis, Stefan Grimm, those anonymous colleagues who share their suffering anonymously and, with apologies that the last recipient is not a person, to REF

 I am happy for the time to think and read
 and for the lab and the students with whom I work
 gracias México, gracias Cinvestav.
 I am unhappy for having suffered a lung embolism
 because I could not understand how managers corrupt
 and for having to rely on electronic communication
 with my - now many ex - Queen Mary colleagues.
 "But of this have I the joy to be aware
 that in their immense addition — their detestable addition
 with the myriad rows of figures, I am not recorded there
 of the many units one. Of me there is no recognition
 in their numeration." Alas, this joy will not suffice my ambition.
 Wake up Kemal, this world needs you to change.

5 thoughts on “Preparing for the big day

  1. Breaking news this morning. Jeremy Kilburn quits from his position at Queen Mary on the eve of the REF announcement.

    From: Principal []
    Sent: 11 December 2014 10:00
    Subject: Staff Announcement – Professor Jeremy Kilburn

    Dear Colleague,

    Professor Jeremy Kilburn will be leaving Queen Mary in the New Year to take up the role of Senior Vice Principal at the University of Aberdeen. Such developments prompt mixed emotions – pleasure that a respected colleague is advancing his career, but regret that we are losing the services of one of our most senior academic leaders. Jeremy has led the Faculty of Science and Engineering with great distinction, advancing both the quality and volume of the Faculty’s work in education and research. He has also contributed much more widely, for example in providing academic leadership in Estates issues and in major input to the Life Sciences initiative.

    Jeremy takes up his new post on 1st March 2015. The search and appointment process for his successor begins immediately and I will let you know in due course the interim arrangements that will apply from 1st March.

    There will be opportunities early in the new year to join an event to celebrate Jeremy’s achievements and thank him for his contributions to QMUL.

    With kind regards,

    Simon Gaskell



    This follows another similar departure (of a senior responsible) right after the restruction of SBCS:

    Zero accountability for the Golden Boys.

  2. REFonomics and REFormations 2014
    by Liz Morrish

    Time for REFlexion
    by Steven Hill

    Research Assessment and REF
    by John Allen

    Science Should Discover Deming
    “There’s a monster threatening scientific research. It’s called measurement.”
    by Matthew Barsalou

    A guide to the REF for the shameless academic
    by Glen Wright

    A seasonal poem: T’was the night before REF
    by Anne Bruton

    Enjoy your REF, while you can
    by Martin McQuillan

    We need to open the academic mind
    And getting rid of the REF would be a good start
    by Joanna Williams

    Governing through unhappiness
    by Will Davies

    My REF story; or, Confessions of a REFFail and REFugee
    by blogger Son of Sar

  3. Research Excellence Framework… the denouement
    by Chris Bertram

    When 17th really means 51st and ‘leading’ means ‘a long way behind’: How UK Universities Spun REF 2014
    by Chris Hackley

    Lies damned lies and the research excellence framework
    by Hugh Morrison

  4. The biter bit?

    “I’ve read the relevant bits.”

    That was how Jamie Targett, Poppleton’s Director of Corporate Affairs, responded when our reporter Keith Ponting (30) asked for his reaction to a study by a doctoral student at University College London into how the research excellence framework had affected the day-to-day lives of academics.

    But had he read the bit that said that “for most interviewees it [the REF] creates pressure and stress, producing a decrease in the quality of the research”?

    “I read that bit,” said Targett.

    And presumably he’d also read the bit where the interviewees say that the REF inhibits long-term research and encourages short-termism? And the bit where a large proportion of the interviewees say they believe that the REF, despite measures to mitigate the impact of maternity leave and childcare responsibilities, still discriminates against female academics?”

    “I read those bits.”

    But how about the bit showing that the REF has even led some academics to reduce their research output? And that other bit about how the REF had discouraged interdisciplinary work?

    “I read those bits as well.”

    So, after reading so many bits of the new research, did Targett now in any way question the value of the REF?

    “You left out a bit. You left out the bit about how university managers are in favour of the REF because they can employ it as a piece of positive motivation for academics who might otherwise spend their time pursuing personal research interests.”

    “So,” suggested Ponting, “you and your fellow managers are requiring academics to engage in a fundamentally flawed exercise merely because it provides you with a chance to exercise authority?”

    “How do you mean, ‘merely’?”

    From Laurie Taylor:

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