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What can Australia learn from the UK experience of the Research Excellence Framework ?

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Academic researchers are judged by publication of their work in peer-reviewed journals but, alongside that international gold standard, are new incentives with the potential to change research culture dramatically.

‘We always, traditionally, have thought of [research] impact as that classic academic Impact: the level of citations, how are you influencing, how are you shaping the thinking of one’s academic peers, the academic knowledge base?’ Dean of Lancaster Management School, Professor Angus Laing, said in an interview with Australian Business Deans Council during a recent visit to Australia.

‘What’s been strengthened is the extent to which that is now being complimented by recognition of the importance of impact on practice. So, the impact on the peer academic community, but also the impact on the professional, the practice community. That’s been a very, very significant re-balancing.’

Professor Laing, who is also Chair of of the Academic Journal Guide Board of the Chartered Association of Business Schools Association (CABS) says that rebalancing, which stems from the introduction of the  Research Excellence Framework in the UK, is also prompting shifts in academic culture.

‘It would be fair to say we are seeing early career academics who, if you like, being socialised into the academic job thinking about impact in terms of the practice – so impact from the outset,’ he says.

‘[But] there’s an interesting challenge, I would suggest, for mid-career to senior academics, some of whom are having to retrofit, if you like, the idea of practice impact into their traditional academic model, into the way they operate.’

Professor Laing says the mid- to late-career researchers are having to develop new skills like ‘the ability to start to think about the very research questions from the perspective of businesses, from the perspective of policy makers, rather than purely from a theoretical, development perspective.’

‘It goes right back to the very start of how you are framing, how you are conceptualising the research questions that you’re addressing. Then, it’s moving onto, as you’re doing the research how are you actively engaging with those professional, practice policy constituencies,’ he says.

The enhanced skillset requires being able to talk to, and bring on board, non-academic constituencies that, Professor Laing says, may once have been ‘treated as a slightly distant object of your study.’

Academics now have to answer the ‘so what?’ question. ‘So, what is this research going to mean for this business community, for this policy community and, very much how are you going to realise that impact?’

He says It is a challenge to ensure that academics avoid abstract and distant language that alienates, rather than engages, the business community.

‘There is a disconnect, that’s often around language rather than necessarily around substance, and it is incumbent on us as business school academics, as business school leaders, to make sure that our academics actually talk those languages that the policy and business communities are going to be using,’ Professor Laing says.

Can Australia Expect Similar Experiences to the UK?

For the first time this year, Australian universities have to submit impact statements to the Engagement and Impact Assessment of the Australian Research Council (ARC).

The ARC defines impact as ‘the contribution that research makes to the economy, society, environment or culture, beyond the contribution to academic research’.

Professor Laing says the first round of a similar process in the UK – the Research Excellence Framework in 2014-15 – produced examples where the impact of the research seemed ‘almost incidental’.

‘Practitioners, policymakers, may well have picked it up, but there was less of a deliberate on the part of many academics to go and build those engagement networks in advance,’ he says.

‘What we’re seeing now is both individual academic colleagues and business schools collectively, thinking about how they engage actively with business and policy communities to lay the framework that will generate Impact cases in due course. So, engagement is a necessary pre-condition for being able to have impact.’

Professor Laing maintains that initial engagement may often involve looking at research through the practitioners’ lenses rather than changing underlying theoretical research questions.

‘It’s a case of bringing practitioners on board into shaping research agendas right from the very outset. So, as academics are thinking about a research proposal, thinking about a research grant application, that you’ve got relevant business, or policy stakeholders, involved in those discussions from the ground up,’ he says.

Proving that the specific research is directly responsible for long-term social change can be problematic. ‘We’ve got to be able to demonstrate that original research has gone and led to that outcome. It is very difficult. It is very long term,’ Professor Laing says.

The UK is currently being challenged by whether you can use the same impact case in more consecutive REF reporting rounds. of reporting round.

Professor Laing says: ‘The argument is ‘yes, but you have to demonstrate between when the measurement was made the last time, what’s the ongoing, the added, benefit?’ because, on a lot of occasions, the impact will run for a decade before you can actually start to really see, can actually start to really, really measure it.

‘Is there an automatic, is there a linear process between the research and the impact coming?  We all know there isn’t,’ he says.

Professor Laing says past practice has been to release research and see how it is picked up in the public domain, but UK universities are now trying to plan and manage that process more effectively.

UK universities are also investing heavily in demonstrating research impact and engagement because the potential social benefits and the financial stakes are high.

‘We probably don’t always like to admit to this, but academics are very, very good at following the money. We’re very, very good at responding to incentives,’ Professor Laine says.

‘If you look at the various performance metrics that we’ve built into the sector over the past couple of decades – whether they’re related to research, teaching, whether they relate to an object’s change – we’ve been very adept, been very good at following those incentives.’

In the UK the big driver under REF has been the number of four-star papers an institution receives under the Qualitative Research (QR) funding.

In the next round of the REF, in 2021, impact will account for one-quarter of the funding so, Professor Laing says, this means that one four-star impact case will be worth nine four-star journal publications.

‘The shift is very, very significant…Business school leaders – whether it’s Deans, Associates Dean of Research, Associate Deans Engagement – are really cognisant of that,’ he says.

‘The top 10, top 15 schools, (in which Lancaster will be right at the very forefront) will probably perform fairly similarly in terms of four-star publications. The differentiating factor is going to be around impact cases,’ Professor Laing says.

To see the full 25-minute video interview with Professor Angus Laing, Dean of Lancaster Management School, go to the home page of the ABDC website at To hear it as a podcast, click here.

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