Following the publication last week of the REF 2021 results, Professor Dominik Zaum, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research & Innovation), shares some personal reflections on the REF process.

Perhaps inevitably, attention turned to the numbers in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the REF 2021 results last week. For some it was the rankings, where Reading’s position showed a small improvement (though, confusingly, not in the THES, which in its rankings excludes a number of small, specialist providers); and where some disciplines, most notably Archaeology (1st), Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences (3rd by Research Power), and Architecture and the Built Environment (6th by Research Power) had outstanding results. For some it is the sheer scale of the exercise – with over 76,000 staff from 157 institutions submitted (an increase of over 45%), and over 185,000 research outputs assessed. Our own submission, with just under 700 FTE, was almost a fifth bigger than in 2014.

I don’t want to dwell on particular results, which are all our REF web pages (with much additional detail, for example on individual impact case studies). As the dust settles, and we learn more about the considerations from the different panels, it is worth reflecting more widely on REF as a process, and on what might be important about the results. Here are four initial thoughts.

First, independent of the results and the incentives that REF can set, it is an important reflection and learning exercise, that can shape in positive ways how we think about and conduct research. REF requires us to think about what makes for a successful and supportive research environment; one that sustains ambition, excellence, and the development of our researcher communities across the University. Importantly, the results enable us to consider whether the research environments we have built reflect these ambitions, where they might fall short, and how we can strengthen and develop them. REF provides us with rich data to identify in the University and beyond areas that do this well and from which others can learn.

Second, REF 2021 has, more explicitly than previous exercises, recognised that research is a collective endeavour, not least by partially decoupling research outputs from the staff submitted. The scale and quality of the research submitted not just reflects the work of those named in the submission, but many others as well: colleagues who have left, post-doctoral researchers who are not independent researchers (yet), PhD students, technicians supporting experiments and data analysis, librarians supporting open research, impact officers, research development managers, teaching intensive colleagues who are contributing to the supervision of PhDs included in the REF submission – the list could continue. Not just the substantial work that has been submitted, but the process of pulling it all together, has had many contributors from across the University – with over 150 colleagues from Schools and Professional Services involved in different elements of the submission process. What that also means is that we all have to jointly own the results – both those that we celebrate, and the ones we might be a bit disappointed by.

Third, the REF is of course important, but it is not everything. It captures the past, and in many ways, it is already out of date. The cut-off point for the last REF was 2020 (so we might be almost a quarter into the next REF period – a sobering thought!), and since then a huge amount has happened across the University. New opportunities and partnerships, such as ECMWF moving onto campus, Shinfield Studios, or the new partnership with the Natural History Museum, are not reflected in the REF results but shape our current and future research. The COVID-19 pandemic which has so forcefully impacted all our lives over the last two years, did touch on our REF submission, but came so late that its impact on it was limited. But we must not forget that the challenges the pandemic presented will significantly shape our submission to the next REF, and more importantly our research culture and environment more generally.

Finally, what aspect of the REF result is the most significant? For me, it is the fact that REF panels, in a rigorous assessment process, have judged our research environment to be across the board conducive to producing world-leading and internationally excellent research and impact – with 96% of our research environment judged to be 3* and 4* – a significant increase from 2014. This recognises improvements in metrics such as research income and PhD completions, but importantly our work as an institution on equality and diversity, on open research, or on researcher development. Much remains to be done on all of those areas, to ensure that we have a research culture that supports ambition and enables excellence in an open and inclusive manner. It suggests though that we can build on strong foundations.

Over the coming weeks and months, together with Deans, and colleagues in Schools and Professional Services, we will reflect further on the results and the data, to learn from it, and see where we need to adjust what and how we do things to ensure the excellence and impact of our research. We look forward to working with many of you on this.

Professor Dominik Zaum is Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research & Innovation).