Guard-Dogs and Sausages

Tomorrow the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework are to be announced, and in universities up and down the country, anxieties are running high. For those who don’t know, the REF is an exercise that aims to evaluate the quality of university research outputs. At best, this is an affair of dubious value: not only does it create enormous and widespread stress amongst university staff, but it is also expensive, it spreads discord and tension, and it has been linked to an increase in bullying within universities. Worst of all, given all of this, it doesn’t even necessarily do what it claims to do—which is to encourage research excellence (see the articles here, and here).

This is all pretty lamentable. And yet, even before the frenzy of the announcement of the REF2014 results, universities are gearing up for REF2020, in six years time. And despite the increasing evidence that the REF, whilst it may be beneficial to the few, is ruinous to the many, universities are all playing along, desperate to be winners in a race in which the vast preponderance of participants are losers.

This is dispiriting stuff, and it would take a brave university to step out of line, not least because funding is linked to REF outcomes (although with a general election looming, there is no guarantee that things here in the UK won’t go truly weird in 2015). With the threat of withdrawal of research funding, universities and individual departments are understandably worried about their balance sheets.

But in surrendering all the the REF, it seems to me that universities are throwing broader, more expansive sets of values out of the window. I have friends who are already sighing about having to write “REF-able” papers for the next exercise—papers that they don’t really want to write, and that they don’t think anybody will really want to read, but that they think might manage to be high-ranked in REF2020. Not good papers, in other words, but papers that are deemed to be good within the framework of a narrow and fundamentally flawed exercise. And I also know people who are not writing the things that they really want to write—the things that they feel, on the basis of their experience, their reading and their interactions with students, are most important and urgent—because this will take them away from the REF sausage-machine.

So what is to be done? Given the ruinousness of the REF for the many, it seems to me that at the very least we should have the decency not to take the whole exercise as seriously as it takes itself. We should have the common sense not to internalise the values of the REF within university structures, recognising that in internalising these values we increase their destructiveness. Not only this, but we should also be willing to laugh at the REF, to poke fun at it, to lampoon it, to lobby against it, to hold out for alternative values amid the maelstrom; and whilst doing so, we should to support a culture of research, teaching, scholarship and service to the broader community, that is wider, more open, more generous, and better than the REF.

Of course, whilst the REF still exists, it may be necessary to be pragmatic. We may not be able to escape the demand for sausage-machine academic productivity entirely (and sausages, as everybody knows, are on average 83% entrails, sawdust and crud). But if we have to make a few sausages on the side, then we might as well make them as tasty as possible. Then, when we are done, we should toss them to the guard-dogs of the REF to distract them, and sneak on by into our offices and our labs where we can start cooking up other, more interesting things, things of more substantial and lasting nutritional value.

As for myself, I am fortunate to have several sausages tucked up my sleeves ready for REF2020. They seem pretty tasty to me, although I don’t know if the guard-dogs will like them or not (I’m not very good at second-guessing these things, and the guard-dogs are fickle). But nevertheless, I worry for the bigger picture. I worry about a university that produces only sausages. I worry that feeding the dogs has become an end in itself. And I worry that this is a self-perpetuating system in which 83% of any given sausage ends up being simply the ground-up remains of other sausages.

It would be nice to see the day when the dogs are at last retired. It would be nice see universities putting the REF in its place, saying that other things matter, and that perhaps they matter more. And it would be nice, one day, to find myself sitting in a university meeting, and talking about research, and finding that we are talking about something other than sausages.



I’m afraid, Will, that this REF thing is only part, or rather a particular manifestation of a more general trend, wherein they want research work to be accountable (before bureaucrats, and therefore, accountable in a way comprehensible for them), practical, profitable (all these in a common mediocre sort of way), and, preferably, self-sustaining financially. They want this impractical thing, human craving for knowledge, to be a business-like matter. For all I know, this is going on everywhere.
These people think that science always goes towards its clearly seen goal using indisputable principles and making no uncertain steps. They think that science is where are big buildings and grand-looking people and funds. They never heard about Louis de Broglie who made his optical experiments in his aunt’s country house by placing a honey drop on a copper plate to make a lense (these experiments of his led to a breakthrough in quantum mechanics).
Your suggestion regarding dogs and sausages might make it worse. Your sword should be directed at the core of things.

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