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Looking ahead: Brexit and the impact agenda

A lot of us feel like we are gazing into crystal balls as Universities across the UK complete their internal mid-term reviews in preparation for the Research Excellence Framework in 2021. There are two key areas of uncertainty clouding up our crystal balls: remaining uncertainty around REF2021 and Brexit.


We are fortune telling with REF in two ways. First, it is clear that small fortunes will be made and lost on the outcome of REF2021, and we are all trying to predict which case studies are most likely to get positive reviews. Given the greater weighting given to case studies this time round, we can expect the average value of a 4* case study to be significantly greater than the £324,000 price tag Simon Kerridge and I calculated last year for 4* case studies in REF2014. Second, the tools we have for predicting scores in REF2021 feel about as opaque as a crystal ball a lot of the time. There are a number of new elements for which we have no precedent (e.g. resubmission of continued impacts from REF2014) and it is clear that standards and expectations are rising across the sector, which may lead to new benchmarks being established for top grades in some Units of Assessment (e.g. the increasing number of policy impacts that also contain evidence of effective policy implementation and subsequent outcomes).

Then there is Brexit. By and large, the academy voted to remain in the EU, but most of us are slowly coming to terms with the outcome of the vote, and realizing that there is a significant role for researchers to make a difference. Michael Gove, once so disparaging of experts, has reflected much of the advice given to him by academics in Defra’s 25 year plan (well, it was probably his civil servants but still…). Whatever politicians may say, across the ranks of the civil service, Whitehall is looking for expert advice. In some cases, these are opportunities to lessen the likely negative consequences of Brexit. In other cases, these are opportunities to do things differently that could yield significant benefits for society if we get them right. The timing of our departure from the EU means that many of the policy impacts arising from our advice will be reportable within the current REF window.

In addition to these obvious opportunities for impact, Brexit is influencing the impact agenda in more subtle ways. Two new funds have been announced that together represent a substantial increase in Government spending on research and innovation: the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. If we lose access to EU funding for research, these funds will go a long way towards plugging the gap that is left. However, they have one very striking thing in common: both funds are heavily impact focused. Their focus on impact is a fairly narrow, instrumental interpretation of impact. Both funds have a strong focus on economic impacts, followed by social and environmental benefits, rather than the broader range of impacts on policy, culture, attitudes, behaviours and awareness that we can submit to REF. Only valuing research that has instrumental impacts will be a threat to many disciplines and researchers.

While this magazine is devoted to research impact, I want to make sure we never lose sight of the intrinsic benefits of blue skies research or stop pursuing knowledge as a society. Whether we like it or not, it is clear that Brexit heralds an even sharper focus on demonstrating the societal value of our research. My plea to you is to look at what motivates you intrinsically as a researcher and identify how the pursuit of impact can feed into those motives, rather than allowing the impact agenda to become all about money, reputations and rankings. Impact is far deeper and richer than that. As we look to the future, I hope each of us will interrogate our own motives for engaging in impact, and whatever your reasons for engaging, let them be your reasons.

Mark Reed

Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation, Newcastle University

CEO, Fast Track Impact Ltd

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