Author: Dr Richard Davies, Higher Education Research and Development Lead, CCL

For good or ill, and it is for both, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has reoriented the social practice of academic research. Its most recent iteration, with a focus on assessing the research culture and support for research of a university, has used the three elements of: the ‘quality’ of research outputs, the scope and depth of the impact of research and the institution’s narrative of its research environment (informed by metrics said to correlate with a strong research environment). Of course, these three are not independent of each other – and money is a core component of all three.

It is a rule of thumb that, generally, a top quality paper (in REF terms) requires top quality data, and top quality data requires money in order to be generated and analysed. This is easy to see and measure in the natural sciences were laboratories and computer systems are visible signs of the need for money to conduct world leading research. It is perhaps less clear in the humanities and social sciences where the laboratories and analysers are human rather than machine. Nevertheless, however good your researchers, money is an essential to world leading research. What is more money is required to increase and evidence the impact of your research. I work with a colleague at a Russell Group university, and following the REF21 submission, she was given around £10 000 to publicise her research and develop its impact. Her research, and by extension my own, was one of a large number funded in preparation for the next REF – allowing the thousand flowers to bloom. It has allowed us to engage with the general public and with policy leaders to show what our research has to say about educational practice. Finally, of course, the level of grant income is one of the metrics that is presumed to indicate the quality of an institution’s research environment.

Now the REF definition of quality is not the only one, and perhaps not the best, but linked with impact is covers (in theory) most of what we might want: rigorous well conducted research which develops what is known and understood in an area of inquiry which has some significant implications for people’s lives. At every stage of the game, however, the universities with the money – the so-called research intensives – spend more money and gain a bigger slice of the external grant pie. If we need money, and by this I mean external grants rather than university handouts (which will never be enough), how then do we play the research game to win?

I want to put forward 8 principles (and then some actions)

  1. We need to see this as a game – it has slightly bizarre rules, a field of play, a team of people (players, managers, backroom staff, supporters) who all need to do what they do best, and it is has clear (if moveable) goals.
  2. We need to be in the game – as a colleague of mine in the US puts it, academics need to be laying ‘golden eggs’. We need to be making applications for grants regularly, both grants that we think we can reasonably get and more adventurous ones.
  3. We need to work on these as a team – each bringing our skills to the applications. Solo applications tend not to be successful.
  4. We need to be developing our skills in grant capture as much as (perhaps more than) our skills in teaching or research – money is the foundation stone.
  5. If research and impact are public goods, and not just a private passion then we need to shape our research agendas to the grant making agendas.
  6. We need to deliver on grants – top priority or we don’t get them again (and neither will colleagues across the university).
  7. Academics, the on-field talent, cannot do this by themselves; we need the rest of the team to step up to enabling the talent to show what they can do. This means systems and professional services aligned to the needs of grant capture and delivery.
  8. We need a management structure than sees delivery on grants and funded research as important as delivery of teaching and learning; and is agile enough to achieve both.

So, what should we do?

  1. Apply for grants – no excuses – teaching, administration, etc. will always be commitments and grant making is rarely a priority. How many applications? Perhaps three a year, and that way on average half of the academic staff will be getting a grant every year.
  2. Grants are a means not an end – we need to be writing the research outputs and monitoring the impact of our research. This needs time and resources which are part of the value of the grant to the university. As a university we need to support, resource and ensure it happens.
  3. We need to remove ‘friction’ to the timely delivery of externally funded projects. The backroom services (and not just Research Services) need to ensure that academics workload is directed towards completion not managing university systems.
  4. We need agile management to re-direct academic staff time to external projects as needed.

Part of the university have these, others do not. But in the meantime, academics need to identify grants worth applying for, collectivise to bid for them, and use the research leads, Readers and Profs to support those applications. Even in a lottery you need to be ‘in it to win it’.


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