2014 is the year of the REF (Research Excellence Framework). It follows the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) of 2008, but University researchers have not really had six years off.

There has been a scramble through 2012/2013 to put submissions together, and as soon as the results are out, we will no doubt start thinking about, worrying about and planning for RUBBE 2019. (‘Utter Brilliance for the British Economy’, in case you were wondering.) Standing at the edge of academia as we do, it has been really interesting to observe the process. There is no doubt that it has sharpened minds to try to ensure that the value of research is optimised, albeit sometimes on measures (e.g. impact, economic growth, etc) that are not easy to attribute to all types of research. But undoubtedly it has also resulted in academic institutions packaging and presenting their outputs in ways that individual researchers are not always comfortable with. Perhaps that is not new, but one gets the feeling that it becomes a bit more intense as the stakes are raised.

If the REF were the only extrinsic pressure on researchers, we might nevertheless recognise that it is necessary in some form, and that it is manageable. But there are other pressures, and we are not alone in observing a growing anxiety that, when combined, these may be having unhealthy effects. If we look also at the demands of securing research funding, the imperative to publish in high impact journals, and the generally competitive nature of a career in science, we find a cumulative set of pressures that create an environment in which people may find it difficult to maintain their professional ideals. By this I don’t mean that they are forced into committing research fraud or even misconduct – though such things do occur. What we are concerned with here is the increasing worry that the conditions under which people work, with the demands of funding, evaluation and publication, are adversely affecting the quality of scientific research itself.

The ideals of science are high, ethical and easy to support. That does not mean that research should be untroubled by finance and accountability - few would suggest that money should be handed over without any regard for quality, outcome or societal relevance. Indeed, many would justifiably claim that the competition that the system generates is what forces the best proposals to emerge and the most productive research to be delivered. So why are people worried? And people really are worried. Working as we do in the area of biological sciences, we have spoken to those who represent life science researchers and research interests – the Royal Society, the Society of Biology and other learned societies – and we find that there is a shared concern that this combination of pressures is creating an environment in which purely scientific objectives become secondary to meeting narrow funding criteria; in which claims about the social or economic potential of a research endeavour are overplayed; and in which careers are advanced or harmed by measures that seem unrelated to scientific excellence.

None of the elements of the system as it is experienced in the life sciences – funding, publishing, assessment – are new or unique, but there is a distinct sense that the narratives and policy imperatives that are driving it are all harnessed in a direction that exacerbates the tensions. There is a widespread unease with the way some people and institutions operate, and a fear that there will ultimately be a serious loss of trust in science as an unambiguously positive societal activity.

All of which explains why we took a lead in setting up a Steering Group to promote discussion and gather views from those working in science about how the research environment is affecting the quality, value and ethical conduct of research.

This is not a project in the usual mould of a Nuffield Council Working Party, tasked with producing a report and policy recommendations. Guided by commitments in our Strategic Plan to be more flexible in considering what kinds of activities are most suitable for exploring each topic and what type of outputs we produce, this is a different kind of project. The Steering Group is made up of representatives of key organisations within the UK science community, including the Royal Society, Society of Biology, Institute of Physics and Royal Society of Chemistry. What we are planning is a collaborative exploration of the issues facing researchers and research institutions in the hope that we can identify where negative pressures lie, and how they might be alleviated without undoing the positive and challenging elements of the system. The Steering Group will want to engage those working in other areas of academia, both as researchers affected by the same pressures and as expert contributors to the discussion and understanding of the current research environment.

We’ll be out talking and listening at meetings and events throughout this year, and will want to hear from as many people as possible from a wide range of disciplines and also from those working in policy, publishing and funding areas. If you are interested, concerned (or not concerned), or just curious, keep in touch. We’ll issue an online survey very shortly, and you can sign up here for updates on the project.

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