ARMA Conference 2010

This year the annual conference of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) took place in Manchester at the Midland Hotel. It was the largest ARMA conference yet, with 350 delegates from research support offices across the UK Higher Education sector. I went along last week with Annalisa Jones (Research Facilitator) and Carolyn Williams (Research Administrator, MHT) from the University of Lincoln.

The conference is subtitled “Making an Impact” which is very apt, because impact is likely to become increasingly important as the HE sector gets to grips with the sweeping cuts planned by the new coalition government over the coming months. The feeling is that if universities are able to successfully demonstrate the clear value and broad impacts of their research on society and the economy, they may be spared the worst of the cuts to come.

Equally, however, there’s a general recognition that the rationale of universities and their research activity should not be directed solely by the relatively short term aims of reducing the UK’s national deficit. In other words, the overall message so far seems to be that impact is important – it’s here to stay – but we should not neglect the curiousity-driven (or “blue sky”) research that is seen as the “bread and butter” of the UK research base.

What follows are some roughly coherent thoughts I’ve put together on the proceedings of the first day of the conference. I’ll try to update later in the week to report on the developments in day 2. If you’d like to read what I wrote about last year’s ARMA conference (particularly to compare and contrast the messages from HEFCE), you can do that here.

Plenary 1 – Brace for Impact: Julia Goodfellow (VC, University of Kent)

Julia kicked off with a “story so far…” for UK Higher Education and talked about the “challenging, uncertain times” ahead.

Since 1997 the UK science budget has increased from £1.3bn to £4bn and there has been a 41% real terms growth in QR funding from HEFCE (Quality Related funding which is dished out on the basis of RAE results). Despite the message that we’ve never had it so good, UK HE investment is still below the OECD average – the UK invests 0.9% of GDP in HE, lagging behind Sweden (1.4%), Canada (1.5%), and the US (1%). Given that the UK’s percentage share of research outputs and citations is one of the highest internationally, the UK’s HE sector gives very good value for money.

Julia’s key message was that the “impact agenda” is not new – it has a long history in UK HE policy which has roots in the influential thinking of JD Bernal and also the Haldane Principle. More recently, the 1992 white paper “Realising our potential” set out the UK government’s plans for science and technology to play a part in increasing the UK’s wealth through exploitation of knowledge. She also contended that impact will become more important as funding decreases in real terms.

Plenary 2 – The Scientific Century: Dr. James Wilsdon (Royal Society)

Dr. Wilsdon, formerly of the political think-tank DEMOS, summarised the Royal Society‘s latest report published to coincide with its 350th anniversary year: The Scientific Century – Securing our Future Prosperity. James repeated Julia’s messages about the UK HE sector as a whole punching above its weight but cautioned on the shifting geography of research investment: China, Saudi Arabia and Brazil were picked out in particular as the rising research stars internationally. He also pointed out that many countries (but not the UK) invested in science and innovation as part of their economic stimulus packages following the recession.

The key recommendations from the Royal Society report are:

  1. Put science at the heart of growth strategy
  2. Prioritise investment in excellent people
  3. Strengthen the Government’s use of science in policy and decision-making
  4. Reinforce the UK’s position as a hub for science
  5. Better align science with current challenges
  6. Revitalise STEM education

Parallel Session 1 – Research Excellence Framework Update (Graeme Rosenburg, REF Manager, HEFCE)

Depending on how recently you’ve checked the HEFCE REF website for updates, Graeme’s session may or may not have lived up to its name. For what it’s worth, I’ll try to cover all of the points raised in some detail. Please leave a comment on this post or get in touch with the Research Office if you’d like to discuss any of this in more detail.

First of all, Graeme said it was “likely” that the REF would be delayed by a year. This doesn’t amount to out and out confirmation of a delay, but it’s the closest you’ll get until HEFCE actually issues the press release (UPDATE: this was in fact confirmed in early July by David Willetts). This is potentially good news for everyone in the sector, particularly as it’s still unclear whether the impact pilot exercise will be a success, or what it will entail for HEIs in terms of additional monitoring and administrative workload.

As most people following this know by now, the REF is essentially the RAE with a few tweaks here and there. It will primarily be assessed by peer review; assessment outcomes will be given in the form of profiles per UoA submitted. There will be 30-40 Units of Assessment in contrast to the RAE’s 60+. Assessment will be by peer review “potentially” informed by citation information in some (STEM-related) UoAs. This use of “potential” strikes me as a small concession since the last REF update.

The current weighting for assessment is: Outputs 60%; Impact 25%; Environment 15%. The weighting for impact is the most controversial, and many responses to HEFCE’s consultation last year have suggested this be downgraded to 15% or lower, with the leftover weighting transferred to outputs.

Like the RAE, the REF will be selective. HEIs will identify staff and outputs as before, though there are some changes to eligibility. There will be a maximum of 4 outputs per person submitted. Staff with teaching-only contracts will not be eligible. This was seen as a major change and something which many of the HEI representatives were unhappy about in the questions following the presentation. Graeme confirmed there would be scope to discuss “double-weighting” of certain kinds of outputs (e.g. monographs, edited books).

HEFCE takes a broad view of eligible impacts, but Graeme confirmed that the REF would be concerned with historical impact (rather than potential future impact), underpinned by high quality research. This was a complicated discussion and the rules are not yet finalised, but essentially the picture on impact looks like this:

  • The impacts must have taken place within the census period of the REF (i.e. from 2008 until 2012/13 depending on delays)
  • The underpinning research must be high quality (RAE 2* or above was given as a guideline); it must have taken place in the submitting institution; and it may have taken place over a longer time-frame than the REF census period (in the pilot exercise, the underpinning research can go back to 1993 so it’s likely that around 15-17 years will be the relevant time period)
  • Economic impact is important, but that’s not the only kind of impact
  • The impact pilot is currently assessing submissions from 29 participating UK HEIs based on case studies which outline: what was the underpinning research?; what benefits did it have?; how is the underpinning research linked to the benefit?
  • Impact pilot assessment panels are a mix of academics and research “users” (e.g. industry, commercial, private sector, public sector)
  • The report on the pilot is to be published in the autumn

For the environment section, a more structured template is to be developed with appropriate definitions, something lacking in the RAE. HEFCE’s preference is to use HESA data on student numbers etc., and to ask the HEI to map that data onto the REF UoAs.

There are still many unanswered questions, particularly about impact. For example, it’s not currently clear what would happen where an institution supports the impact of research which was undertaken elsewhere, or how submissions from newer departments will be treated.

Parallel Session 2: Enabling & Sustaining Research in a non-research-intensive University (Pamela Johnstone, Bournemouth and Richard Bond, UWE)

In Bournemouth, research was given a high priority following the 2001 RAE. As a result of various actions and strategic decisions, they increased QR income from £400K in 2001 to £2.2M in 2008. Some of the measures taken to develop Bournemouth’s research culture include:

  • More effective sharing of best-practice and intelligence across Schools
  • Building on the strong links between Research and Enterprise by establishing a joint Research and Enterprise Office
  • Enhancing the support structure in terms of Research Office staffing: Bournemouth now has Research and Enterprise Support Officers for each School
  • Development of Bournemouth’s online research support service (both internal and external)
  • Development of a suite of staff training activities for research, including lunch time sessions on research funding opportunities
  • Enabling cross-School collaborations in the areas of: Green knowledge economy; well-being across the lifespan; and the creative and digital economy
  • Introducing more robust academic appraisals which concentrate on research

At UWE the focus has been on sustaining rather than growing their research income and culture. UWE is the 6th largest UK university in terms of student numbers, and in the last RAE received £6M in QR income and receives £9.4M/year in research income. Richard outlined the background to their policy of sustainability by presenting the hierarchy of UK universities and pointing out that no post-92 institution is higher than 41st (Plymouth), and no pre-92 institution is lower than 51st (Aston). No post-92 is going to become “the next Warwick”, therefore.

One of the key decisions that UWE took in light of this strategy was to be much more selective in their research support provision. It is no longer a broad service that any member of staff can access, but is focussed on those research groups and areas which have most potential. As Richard put it, this is “intelligent” bid support.

Parallel Session 3: Funders’ Forum on Impact (Steven Hill, RCUK; Fiona Nightingale, KTP Advisor; Alan Wardle, ESRC; Simon Denigri, AMRC)

Four representatives from four different funding organisations each gave a short presentation to outline their take on the impact agenda.

Steven Hill from RCUK reiterated points already made by Julia Goodfellow in the morning plenary that impact is not a new agenda, and is not going to go away. He explained the rationale behind RCUK’s transition from “impact plans” to “pathways to impact” – essentially the emphasis is on trying to get researchers to think several months or years down the line to anticipate what impacts their research may give rise to.

Fiona Nightingale, a KTP Advisor for the Manchester region, outlined the KTP application process and made the case that KTPs are a good way to demonstrate that research is being applied. Further, developing a KTP project plan in conjunction with an advisor is a good basis for one of the “pathways to impact” documents now required on all research grant applications to Research Councils.

Alan Wardle, representing the ESRC, put his case that impact doesn’t entail a loss of academic freedom or blue skies research. ESRC knows you can’t predict the results of your research, but, he said, you can give “careful consideration to the ways your research may be used”. Alan also made the key point that “an inventive dissemination strategy is not the same as a good impact plan”.

Simon Denigri of the Association of Medical Research Charities outlined the membership of his organisation and explained that the AMRC acts as a “quality mark” for research charities. At a minimum, AMRC members must have in place a system of peer review and they must have a long-term research strategy which informs their operations. Finally, Simon emphasised the importance of close cooperation between business and charities in medical research.