Challenging the ‘Impact’ element of the REF assessment

The original proposal from the funding councils to include an impact element in the research assessment was highly controversial.

Following government prompting, the initial proposal in the HEFCE consultation document on the REF in 2009 included a proposal to base 25 per cent of the assessment on an evaluation of the ‘economic and social impact’ of research.

We expressed our strong concerns that the proposals would undermine support for basic research across all disciplines as well as disproportionately disadvantaging research in the arts and humanities, leading to the further commercialisation, and therefore narrowing, of the research agenda.

Nearly 18,000 academics, including a number of Nobel prize winners, signed the UCU ‘Stand Up for Research’ statement opposing this proposal.

The statement underlined the view of the academic community that it would be counterproductive to make funding for the best research conditional on its perceived economic and social benefits.  These proposals were founded on a lack of understanding of how knowledge advances, given the difficulty in predicting which research will create the greatest practical impact. History shows us that in many instances it is curiosity-driven research that has led to major scientific and cultural advances. We therefore called on the funding councils to withdraw this damaging proposal.

See full ‘Stand Up for Research’ statement here:

As part of our campaign, we also produced a report which identified a range of scientific discoveries which might never had made the light of day if researchers had been constrained by the demands of the REF: (see:

We also released polling evidence which demonstrated the strength of opposition to the proposals among professors. Over two-thirds (69%) of professors did not support the impact proposals, over a third (35%) would consider pursuing their academic career abroad if the changes were introduced, and almost two-thirds (65%) said they thought the proposals would alter the focus and practice of research in their department (see:

Our policy briefing on the REF impact proposals can be found here: UCU policy briefing: Research Excellence Framework (REF), Dec 09 (.doc) [279kb]

Following the UCU-led campaign, the impact proposals were modified, with a lower weighting in the assessment. A case study approach was adopted, with each submitting unit required to submit a certain number of case studies corresponding to the number of researchers submitted in the ‘outputs’ category (2 case studies where there are up to 14.99 members of staff submitted; 3 where there are between 15 and 24.99 members of staff submitted; 4 for 25 and 34.99 members of staff; and so on).

The case study approach, while limited, has nevertheless led to additional pressure being placed on academic staff to produce work that can be used to demonstrate impact, so as to ensure that the submitting unit has the right number of case studies (of an appropriate nature and quality) that corresponds to the estimated number of researchers being submitted.

Although most respondents to the UCU survey on the REF agreed on the need for academic research to resonate beyond academia, the inclusion of an ‘impact’ element within the REF and the operation of this part of the assessment was severely criticised by many. It was viewed as critically undermining academic freedom, distorting the nature of academic endeavour and hugely frustrating for researchers asked to justify their research in this way.

The impact element has further served to undermine the credibility of the REF, adding to the huge bureaucracy created by the need for institutions and researchers to comply with submission requirements, further constraining research choices and academic freedom, and favouring certain types of research and research fields over others.  UCU will continue to point to the damaging effect of the REF ‘impact’ element as part of its broader critique of the assessment framework and in arguing for an end to this flawed exercise.


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