Forget REF – Start with what you are interested in….

At a meeting I recently attended I was struck by how the REF remained front and centre of all discussions related to research including how universities might encourage academics in smaller institutions to undertake research. This of course includes the challenging task of completing research funding applications. The discussion moved between common themes like research metrics, which funders to apply to, the types of outputs you (the university and academic) needs and how this would then fit with any given Unit of Assessment (UoA) or overall strategy of the university for the next REF. It was acknowledged that younger (or at the very least those who are new to academic life) are generally more open to applying for research funding and being engaged in the process. But even then the approach to metrics, REF strategies and outputs can still seem wearing and distant to the academics concerned.

I made the point to the people around me that I never discuss the REF with academics. I just don’t see the point if you are trying to encourage research activity and I believe that focusing these discussions around the REF and performance management is ultimately a counter productive way of encouraging research. It feels a bit more like a stick as opposed to a carrot. Given that I don’t talk about the REF then what do I talk to them about? Well, put simply, I just talk to academics about their research. What interests them, what would they like to do, what have they done in the past and where do they see their career going in the future. This tends to lead to a more fruitful discussion and can generate sparks of genuine interest in pursing research. Nobody ever started a PhD with REF in mind so don’t start research support discussions in that way either. I believe if you start with what people are interested in researching you will inevitably hit the metrics you need including producing high quality research, good outputs and quite possibly strong impact as well. All of these outcomes will more naturally stem from research that academics want to do and have ownership of.

So, some advice for academics thinking about pursuing research or who might be under pressure to develop research funding applications; don’t start with REF and all the metrics, start with what interests you, it will only increase your chances of success.