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Does REF create a conflict of interest for researchers who are submitting impacts?

Many researchers who want to achieve impact prize their neutrality and independence as one of their greatest assets. Nobody wants to be accused of being a lobbyist or “in the pocket” of industry. Our greatest defense against such accusations is that our research seeks the public interest rather than our own personal interest or the interests of those who fund our research.

However, for many researchers, the Research Excellence Framework is making this an increasingly difficult defence to maintain. To what extent are we seeking to affect change in the public interest, or in the interests of our own careers and institutions? What are the implications of these increasingly mixed motives for generating impact, and what might be done to enable researchers to pursue impact with a clear conscience?

Impact for the wrong reasons

There is a new group of researchers in the UK who have never attempted to generate impact from their research before, but are now doing so for the first time. Many of these researchers had aspired to achieve impacts, but did not have the confidence or skills to do so. Now, with the advent of free research impact training, many of these researchers are learning how to put their work into practice.

However, there are others who are doing this for different reasons. These researchers have been told by their institutions that they need to translate their excellent research into policy and practice, and achieve impacts for REF2021. There is a strong economic imperative from institutions whose rankings depend on strong performance, and it is estimated that a top-scoring impact case study will be worth 5.5 research outputs in 2021, which could be worth up to half a million pounds (based on the increased weighting of impact and the calculation that a 4* case study was worth £324,000 in 2014). As a result, there is a group of researchers now who are engaging in activities to generate for one primary reason: to generate a high scoring REF impact case study.

A conflict of interest arises when a person derives personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity. Engaging in impact can lead to personal benefits when a person gets promoted or tenured on the basis of funding linked to impact via their research or REF submission. Being able to demonstrate impact is an increasingly important criterion for obtaining funding in the UK, especially since the advent of the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Industrial Strategy Research Fund. Alongside papers, research funding is a common criterion for academic promotion. Increasingly, contribution to REF is also now recognised in promotion exercises.

In my experience, there is now an increasing recognition in the stakeholder community that researchers now have to report and evidence impact. Most organisations take a positive view of this and are happy to work with researchers to provide evidence of the benefits they derive. However, in the lead-up to REF2014, some organisations were overwhelmed by the number of requests being made for evidence. I know of one large company that refused to provide testimonials to researchers due to the workload involved in meeting these requests. Where researchers are “fishing” for evidence that their work was used by organisations who they did not directly work with, or where benefits from research are marginal, such requests are likely to be met with even greater skepticism.

With the growing recognition that researchers need to demonstrate impact, there is a growing suspicion that researchers are engaging for personal and institutional gain rather than in the public interest. One civil servant once told me how she wished “researchers would stop calling me up to have an impact on me when I’ve got a job to do”. One charity told me how researchers have repeatedly broken apart their painstakingly constructed long-term partnerships in order to achieve impact through a stakeholder workshop that ticks a box in their “pathway to impact”, never to be seen or heard again.

What happens when you discover that the stakeholders you have spent time building relationships with actually want different information, not related to your research? What happens if they can only achieve impacts from your work after the REF deadline? If you were engaging in the public interest, then you would find ways of getting the most relevant evidence to those decision-makers, whether or not it was linked to your own research and so benefited your career or institution via REF. However, if you were motivated primarily by REF, would you continue investing time to help your stakeholders use someone else’s research that is more relevant to their needs?

If we are primarily motivated by REF to generate impact, does REF constitute a conflict of interests? Alternatively, if our engagement results in win-wins for stakeholders, our careers and our institutions, do our motives matter?

Should there be a searchable conflicts of interest register for researchers?

Researchers are not strangers to conflicts of interest. We are regularly asked to declare these in our publications and to our employers. But we are not required to declare these interests when pursuing impact. As such, how does a policy-maker, business or charity (for example) know whether we will benefit personally or institutionally from our interaction with them, and should they know? If our research was funded by a pharmaceutical company or that company was paying us personally and giving us benefits in kind, you would think that NHS commissioners would want to know. Should it be any different for the personal and institutional benefits we gain via REF?

I have chosen the NHS as an example because we may be able to learn from systems developed to help researchers and doctors who work with the pharmaceutical industry be transparent about their links. The Association of the British Pharmacutical Industry holds a publically available register that shows payments and benefits in kind made by the pharmaceutical industry to academics, doctors, nurses and other health professionals and organisations in the UK. The goal is to ensure that relationships between industry, researchers and healthcare providers is open and transparent, to build trust in those who provide evidence of the benefits of the drugs made by the industry. There is an acceptance that in the UK, the triumvirate of the NHS, academia and industry is required in order to achieve benefit for patients but conflict of interest registers give confidence in the decision-making systems. Engagement with the disclosure system has increased from 2015 to 2016 with 65% of healthcare professionals giving consent to disclose payments.

Most Universities also hold a register of external interests for their staff (for example, you can read about the Newcastle scheme here). However, there is one crucial difference: these registers are not publically available or searchable. Instead, they are used internally to identify external interests and help line managers deal with conflicts of interest.

If the researcher who was approached by a colleague who worked with Cambridge Analytica had been able to search his University’s external interests database, might it have been easier for him to identify the conflicts of interest of his colleague? Similarly, if policy-makers were able to see the conflicts of interests declared by the researchers they interact with, would it be easier for them to decide who they trust?

A recent study showed that the perceived reliability of sources is the most important factor determining whether or not UK policy-makers use evidence. However, they do not have time to research who is funding a researcher or what other conflicts of interest they may be hiding. Instead, this research showed that they based their trust on their perception of the quality of the content or on the basis of how much they trusted the person who sent them the evidence.

Instead of having to infer the reliability of sources in these ways, might it be time for the research community to come up with a searchable conflict of interests register to increase transparency and trust in research?

Mark Reed is Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation at Newcastle University and CEO of Fast Track Impact. Follow him on Twitter: @profmarkreed

Jagtar Singh Nijjar is a NIHR Clinical Lecturer in Rheumatology based at the University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s hospital. He is interested in stratified medicine and investigating rare inflammatory bone diseases to understand ways to benefit patients through research. Follow him on Twitter: @jagtarnijjar

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