Draining my energy- life with the REF

As any of my colleagues will tell you, I am not one for moaning (ha ha) about the oddities of working in the university environment. For people working outside academia the view of what we actually do here is probably very distorted. Current and former students are probably of the belief that academics teach for 20 weeks of the year and spend the rest of their time on holiday. Others will have their view shaped by TV detective series and perceive academic to spend their time “thinking” in wood panelled Oxbridge office suites, in between long pub lunches, dalliances with attractive students of the opposite sex, spying for the Commies and occasionally committing murder most foul.

The truth is of course very different and the view among some of my colleagues is that the academic life is becoming something of a vocation in which we commit to long hours of chasing paper, ticking boxes and having to respond to undergraduate enquiries at any time, day and night (I did actually pick up an email about a dissertation problem on Christmas Day last year- and yes, sadly, I answered it). The big regret for many of us is that these things are pulling us away from the reason why we became university academics- our research. Research is the bit which excites us, pulls us out of bed in the morning, sends us on field trips and conferences via economy class airlines to grotty hotels in far flung parts of the world. It is also the thing the the university values most and wants us to do more of. 

Success for the individual in research requires only a little short of full-time attention. Ideas have to be generated, flashes of inspiration (usually in the bath) captured, pilot data collected, networks formed, opportunities spotted, etc. The realisation is setting in among bioscientists that a golden age of research funding has slipped by and times are getting harder. Competition for research grants is tougher than ever and who you know is becoming as important as what you know. 

For me, the big drain on my ability to play this research game over the last two years or so is the Research Excellence Framework (REF). REF is the new version of the Research Assessment Exercise which takes place in the UK roughly every five years. The aim is to examine the quality of research that takes place in the universities and then use the outcomes to determine how public money is allocated to universities over the next five years so that the better research groups receive the lions share of the kitty so to speak (too many feline references there). REF, having been originally touted as a light touch version of the exercise that would make more use of a range of easily available metrics, is bigger and more complicated than anything that has ever gone before.

For my sins, or at least for my lamentable lack of ability to decline invitations to take on “special” roles, I am coordinating the REF submission for two Schools at the university. There is of course no pressure in this other than the fact that approx. £25 million is at stake for us, along with the reputation of the university for excellence (we were top of some league tables for our disciplines in 2008 and heading south from there is not going to bring a smile to anyone’s face). I think that I said I was not going to moan about this, so I won’t… Let’s just say that the process has been an entertaining mixture of herding cats, pulling teeth, wading through treacle, swimming in sewage and applying live electrodes to some of the more sensitive parts of my anatomy. Preparing the REF submission has required us to assess and score the quality of well over 1000 research papers produced by the 150 academics in our “unit of assessment”, produce a document that succinctly describes and provides evidence for the excellence of our research environment and a set of a dozen or so case studies that describe the Impact of our work. Impact is the new buzz word that describes how the research that we do (using public money) benefits people outside the academic sector (for example improving the health of the nation, boosting business, enriching society). At the start of this process I don’t think we really understood what Impact means, so this has been a major challenge in terms of REF preparation. Hours and hours and hours of my life have been invested in this and I just hope it all works out. The results are released in December 2014, at which time I will either open the champagne or open the envelope containing my P45! 

So REF has swallowed my life for a couple of years, but the end is in sight. The submission goes off in late November, but internally we are “locking down” systems much sooner, so just a few more weeks lie between me and the post-REF period. I still have work to do, so better stop writing this soon. REF3a and the insertion of evidence of follow-through beckons for today.

The good news is that at the end of this I will have a period of study leave. This means that I will not be doing any teaching or teaching-related activities between Jan and Sept 2014. Fingers crossed that I can slip back into my research seamlessly…

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