REFlecting research culture

  • 22 June 2023
  • Business, General, Technology
  • Grace Gottlieb

The next REF is taking shape! Plans for REF 2028 are out and they reflect a fundamental shift not just towards process over outcomes, but also towards collectivism over individualism. Given that momentum behind these culture changes has been snowballing in recent years, it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a deeply philosophical shift.

If you, like me, enjoy reading popular science, you’ll be aware that historically individual researchers’ careers have hung starkly in the balance depending on whether their “big finding” turned out to be big after all, or – heaven forbid – of little significance. Nowadays things have not improved that much.

This outdated value system is fundamentally at odds with what research actually is: a process. The 2005 essay “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” by John Ioannidis caused such a stir because it drew attention to the alarming consequences of such a findings-based value system.

Other signs that we haven’t got things right have become increasingly hard to overlook, not least the mental health impacts of a competitive, individualistic culture.

Both Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UKRI, and Jessica Corner, Research England’s Executive Chair, have been long-standing advocates of “team science”. The efforts to move the FRAP away from emphasis on individuals towards a focus on institutions, disciplines and environments reflects these values.

So, how exactly are the funding bodies going to measure that elusive thing, culture?

The plan is to develop a framework relating to research culture that defines core data or evidence requirements for the newly named “People, Culture and Environment” statement. In response, it appears, to feedback on REF2021’s environment statement, there will be a “more tightly defined, questionnaire-style template” for this statement, to “create greater consistency across submissions”.

Consistency will help to coordinate the sector’s efforts around research culture ambitions. At the same time though, the funders appropriately want the culture framework to offer “flexibility for HEIs to tailor submissions to their own circumstances and priorities”. This will not be an easy balance to strike. When I interviewed stakeholders across the sector about research culture for a Russell Group project, one thing that stood out was the enormous breadth of activities that can plausibly fit under the “research culture” banner.

The question then, is how can REF 2028 fairly compare institutions’ research culture efforts without excessive standardisation?

Making fair comparisons across institutions will require particular finesse given that institutions now receive block funding from Research England specifically for research culture activities, and that funding varies from £50,000 to £1m depending on the size of the institution.

Of course, such tricky tradeoffs are nothing new to REF architects. And lots of consultation will of course ensue. We’re kicking off the debate with an open forum event at UCL on 5th July – if you want to question the funding bodies and senior leaders in the sector on this and all things FRAP, join us.


On Wednesday 5 July, UCL, in partnership with the Foundation for Science and Technology, the Research on Research Institute and Research England, will host an open forum on The Emerging Shape of REF 2028. The event is free to attend in person and online.

Grace Gottlieb, Head of Research Policy, Office of the Vice-Provost (Research, Innovation & Global Engagement), UCL​.