Most people seem to think the Stern Review of the REF (Building on Success and Learning from Experience), published today, has done a fine job, with (if my Twitter stream is to be believed) the exception of the issue of the portability of outputs. The interpretation being put on it is that this will somehow disadvantage early career researchers (ECRs). I am rather baffled by this sentiment, possibly because I remember a world before the very first Research Assessment Exercise. This was a world in which there wasn’t a hiring frenzy in the lead-up to some artificially constructed deadline. The academic world back then did not possess the equivalent of a football transfer window. People did not have to work out the pros and cons of throwing their hats into the ring only within this window to try to move to a permanent position, potentially thereby giving up a thriving postdoctoral experience at an inopportune moment. Since the opportunity for such a move did not arise only once every five years or so, they could choose the right time to suit their own trajectory. (In fact, in those far off days, there were practically no permanent jobs on offer at all, but that’s a different tale.)
So, for someone such as myself with a long memory, the idea that work done in one place which can’t be ported to a somewhere else (which, by the by, had done nothing to support the work in question) would somehow disadvantage an ECR seems somewhat baffling. The fear seems to me to be tantamount to saying that ECRs have no confidence that, having done one superb piece of work they will ever be able to do another at their new place of work. Why? Work done prior to a job offer will surely have fed into the fact the job offer was made, but why should the new institution get the credit for it? And why should the move hinder them continuing to prove what excellent scientists they are, whether this is counted this time around or in some future exercise?
It has also been suggested that hires of ECRs won’t be made if prior work can’t be credited to it, since hiring a new ECR may do little to burnish their new institution’s reputation. I don’t understand this either since, even if they are appointed too soon before any deadline to make much of a contribution in their new role, if institutions only need to submit an average of two outputs per person then by extrapolation some can submit none. People can indeed be regarded as research active yet have no outputs submitted and there won’t be an institutional penalty, at least in a department of more than a handful of researchers. Instead, just as individuals can throw their hat into the permanent job-market-stakes at a time that works for them, so can institutions hire at times that suit them and their overall turnover of staff at all levels. Instead of having a wave of hiring and then in essence a job freeze for an extended period, they will be able to see a better spaced out supply of new blood.
Many of the people expressing concern will not have first-hand experience of the sort of game-playing that some institutions have engaged with in the past, games that satisfied the letter of the eligibility criteria but most certainly not the spirit. When I sat on the RAE2008 Physics Panel there were some egregious examples of institutions that hired a number of eminent overseas scholars for a few weeks (literally) around the census date so that their publications could be ‘claimed’, regardless of where the work was actually carried out or what contribution these scholars made (if any) to the wider good of the institution. The rules made such staff inclusions admissible. However panels did have the option (and in some instances did so) of marking down the institution under the environment heading, since such transient members of staff really could not be credited with much input into the departmental ethos. I am much happier with a system in which credit is given to the organisation where the work is carried out.
Furthermore, there are other aspects of game playing we can hope that departments will cease to attempt to play. One of the most important of these will be a removal of the stigma associated with who is not included, since everyone whose role incorporates research will have to be submitted. This should lead to a much more inclusive and less divisive environment for all. I believe this will be particularly the case for those whose personal circumstances in REF2014 had to be declared and investigated, however sensitively. Raising one’s hand and saying something along the lines of ‘I’ve been off sick with depression for two of the last five years and working part-time for the rest so please can I have my necessary outputs reduced’ cannot have been comfortable for the individuals concerned. (Here I would add in the caveat that I think there should be a distinction made between those who are ‘research active’ and those whose job description includes research, a distinction that I don’t think the Stern Review actually makes. If this distinction is not made I believe there will still be scope to exclude individuals because a head of department chooses to declare they are not ‘research active’ which would again be counter to the spirit of the proposals and lead to stigmatisation.)
Of course, the devil will be in the detail, as it always is. Precisely what the average number of outputs stipulated has to be to provide the best measure of a department’s strength will be one such thorny detail. How to arrive at the appropriate head count of who is in the final figures may also be a challenge: how do you count individuals who retire during the census period, for instance? Or is it just the FTE head count on an arbitrary date that matters? However, I for one welcome the removal of portability as likely to lead to fewer abuses than the model it replaces.