Defining significant responsibility for research: an inclusive approach

Defining significant responsibility for research: an inclusive approach

27 February 2019

Balancing a desire to be inclusive versus the need to demonstrate institutional excellence is a perennial feature of REF and RAE processes. Allegations of gaming and exclusion of groups of staff during REF 2014 contributed to Stern’s recommendation that all research active staff should be returned.

The funding bodies have sought to operationalise this as staff with ‘significant responsibility for research’. This is open to numerous interpretations, not all of them benign or in the spirit of Stern. For example, the use of workload as a defining characteristic (apart from its tautological implications) opens the possibility for mass reallocation of staff time to guarantee a smaller, more perfect return.

How do we avoid this?

Stern indicates what we should concentrate on:

‘Selecting who should be included in the REF…can generate problems with career choices, progression and morale…. Both the literature review and responses to the Call for Evidence suggest that there are long-term consequences to individuals who are not returned in the REF.’

This surely implies that researchers and their development need to be put at the heart of any staff identification strategy.

Inevitably, this will result in larger returns. It also means that, as well as explicitly assessing research excellence, REF 2021 will implicitly measure the quality of research management within an institution in that inclusivity will be based on input measures (e.g. time, resources or contracts) and not outputs. Those that find a way to construct a supportive environment to enable and better motivate staff to produce higher quality work will be the beneficiaries of the forthcoming REF.

In this way, REF 2021 presents an opportunity for HEIs to not only draft a Code of Practice but also review their systems of support and development of academics.

At Salford we are currently partway through defining a new ‘academic career pathway’ in which colleagues will be able to indicate a specialism in teaching, research or leadership, within a standard academic contract, and enable parity of esteem. In preparation for this we’re incorporating the components essential for REF 2021. 

Colleagues who wish to be considered for the research career pathway, and by extension having  significant responsibility for research (SRR), will submit a request via the completion of a three-year research plan. This will be reviewed against objective criteria, including a range of activities and behaviours that we expect a researcher to exhibit. The approach incorporates moderation to ensure universality.

As part of this process we assess whether colleagues meet the criteria for having SRR or are adjudged as being our ‘Next Generation’ (NextGen) researchers. This latter group could include non-independent researchers or colleagues transferring from industry into academia who require considerable development to become skilled researchers. The NextGen staff will receive enhanced training, mentoring and development time to help them achieve their ambitions.

Those defined as active researchers, and thus having SRR, will subsequently be able to access dedicated resources, such as: internal funding, PhD students, specialist training and development, and research time. The composition of the support package will depend on the needs of each researcher and their individual plan. Performance is reviewed annually via their personal development review (PDR) and the plan and resource requirements are updated accordingly (see figure below).

We believe this model provides a comprehensive supportive environment to help our researchers become more successful. Individual opt-in through an endorsed three-year plan also assists with equality and diversity, serving as a fairer, inclusive and more transparent (and auditable) mechanism to identify our colleagues who are defined as having significant responsibility for research.

We should never forget that there is more to research than REF and we shouldn’t categorise people by this alone. But the Stern-informed design of REF 2021 is an opportunity to use it as a tool to empower and enhance the skills and talent of our research community. We should embrace it.

Figure 1: the Salford model of defining significant responsibility for research


Academic career framework

(Credit: Rachel Brenchley, Jo Cresswell and Karl Dayson)