If you’re an early-career researcher or lecturer the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF2021) may be your first REF round, but it probably won’t be your last. The main way in which the REF will affect early-career academics is in its requirement for outputs (between two and four published outputs for full-time academics with significant responsibility for research). But the other components of the REF – research environment, and research impact – also affect you, albeit in a less direct way. The research environment is most likely to be out of your hands, given that it is an account of your unit’s record such matters as doctoral degrees awarded, research and staffing strategy, and income, infrastructure, and facilities. But the research impact element of any REF return is a different matter.
Impact in the REF has been defined by HEFCE as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’, and is evidenced by a number of case studies for each unit. The weighting given to the impact element for impact in REF2021 is now 25% (an increase of 5% since REF2014; the other elements will be outputs – 60%, and environment – 15%). And while the final writing-up of the case studies is likely to be compiled and written up by senior members of staff, this should not deter the individual early-career researcher from thinking about how to gain experience in this component of the REF. After all, the impact element of the REF shows no sign of diminishing in importance and is likely to play an important role in any ongoing research career.
Group data collection
One of the imperatives of the REF is that impact must be evidenced through the collection of data. Data collection methods are not prescribed by HEFCE, and vary widely from discipline to discipline, covering anything from survey data, interviews, discussion groups, testimonies (written and spoken), and so on. Consider whether your own research already lends itself to any of these methods, and whether you might offer your expertise in collecting data for a particular research group (your assistance might be called upon in the drafting of questions for evaluative questionnaires, for instance). In short, even if your own research is not ready to be placed in an impact case study group, look around you and offer your services in constructing data collection methodologies for groups you aspire to join, or that do research that is cognate with yours.
Drafting impact material
Similarly, now is the time to involve yourself, if possible, in the writing of impact case study material for your unit. Case studies are complex, multi-part narratives, and will often be written by a number of different authors over any given REF cycle. Your Director of Research or Director of Impact may welcome offers of input in the drafting and editing process, and this can also be a great way for you to gain invaluable, hands-on experience in the nuances of how to construct impact case study narratives. In particular, view this as an opportunity to understand how the requirement for impact to be underpinned by research outputs can be implemented in practice, as this can be the most difficult element of impact for researchers to grasp.
Examining your own research
Lastly, even if you do find yourself working on a case study that does not involve your own work directly, use the experience to ask yourself how your work in the future might be built into a case study. Consider the following potential measures of impact, in terms of how your work might affect the public sphere beyond academia: might it be used to affect public policy, for instance, or the economy, society, culture, medicine, or technology? When you think about the ongoing development of your work, might there be opportunities to build-in impact-related activities in any future grant applications? Could your work have spin-off opportunities for the appointment of postgraduate or postdoctoral researchers to undertake impact-related activities, such as evidence gathering? Keeping an eye on the impact agenda as it unfolds in this and subsequent REF cycles is a good way to position yourself and your own research plans in such a way as to maximise your own potential, as well as the benefits for your unit and discipline as a whole.