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Last chance to celebrate the staff the REF doesn’t reach


Not everyone vital to research has “researcher” in their job title, says Andy Dixon

Weirdly, I quite like the Research Excellence Framework.

I like that despite the bureaucracy, at its heart it is a celebration of research, and of the efforts and creativity of a multinational community across all corners of UK higher education. I like the focus it brings to my work, and the galvanising effect upon individuals and teams to come together in this shared endeavour.

I’m less keen on the minutiae of the guidance, of the technical whys and wherefores, of agonising over a piece of guidance that suggests flexibility but is so scarily broad you’d need to be extremely bold to step outside the conventional ways of presenting research.

I’m also not too keen on the way that an administrative exercise can distract us from the thing itself—the creative, rigorous investigation that makes a difference in our communities and beyond.

So, when an email about the Hidden REF arrived during the final stages of wrangling the University of Portsmouth’s REF submission, it caught my interest and imagination.

Serious and playful

I was a bit circumspect at first—I like a bit of subversion but I don’t want to undermine the work of those involved in the REF. The team at Research England has helped us all over the line in the most challenging of circumstances.

However, my apprehension passed as it became clear that the Hidden REF is both a serious and playful accompaniment to the REF proper, providing an alternative lens through which we can explore the potential future for research assessment.

I was also struck by parallels with discussions around the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers (I’m a member of its strategy group). The group has discussed at length the different audiences and beneficiaries of the Concordat.

We settled on a definition that focused on individuals whose primary job is doing research but allowed for many others who actively engage in research within institutions. That includes postgraduate researchers, staff on teaching and research or teaching-only contracts, clinicians, professional support staff and technicians.

There’s an echo here with current initiatives from both the science minister and UK Research and Innovation. In the former, Amanda Solloway is seeking 101 people doing 101 different jobs that make major contributions to research and innovation, but who are not researchers and innovators.

In the latter, UKRI chief executive Ottoline Leyser is working to debunk the myth of research conducted by lone geniuses. Writing on UKRI’s blog, she has noted that “this community of diverse, complementary talents drives research and innovation, and every member of the community is important”.

Supporting actors

These viewpoints chime with a category of the Hidden REF called Hidden Role, aimed at celebrating the contributions of the many and varied people who help with the design, discovery, delivery and dissemination of research.

These roles can include, but are not limited to, data stewards and managers, librarians, technicians, research software engineers, professional services personnel, research managers and administrators, professional research investment and strategy managers, and lived experience contributors.

If you know of someone who has made a significant contribution to your research, and who you think should be recognised in the Hidden REF, please make a submission on their behalf (ask them first). You only need to write 300 words or so about their contribution.

While the REF deadline has passed, submissions for the Hidden REF are open until 14 May.

Andy Dixon is deputy director of Research and Innovation Services at the University of Portsmouth, and a member of the Hidden REF committee