2011 Radiography and the REF


Professor P G McKenna

 The development of radiography degree programmes in the late 1980s coincided with the introduction of the periodic assessment of research performance in UK universities. The first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) took place in 1989, followed by similar exercises in 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008. The purpose of introducing the RAE was to allocate block research funding to universities on the basis of quality and volume of activity. Although there have been some modifications in methodology and performance descriptors from one exercise to the next, the basic approach has remained unchanged: research performance is assessed in each subject area (Unit of Assessment; UoA) in each university by peer review, with ratings being awarded largely on the basis of outputs (mostly publications) over the review period, and other performance indicators such as research staff and research student numbers, research doctorates awarded, and external research grant income received. Due weighting has also been given to indicators of esteem (e.g. international awards, keynote research presentations, representation on prestigious grant awarding committees etc.), the research environment within the university and the relevant department, and the plausibility of future plans.

 Evidence of the benefits of research to users (e.g.in policy formulation, patents filed and exploited, development of new treatment regimes etc.) has also been an increasingly important factor since, and including, the 1996 RAE. This latter factor has been driven largely by government in recognition of the perceived need to get ‘value for money’ and the recognition that university research can be a powerful engine to drive knowledge-based economic and social development. Funding has then been allocated by the Higher Education Funding Councils to the universities on the basis of ratings awarded and the volume of research activity in each Unit of Assessment in which the university was represented in the RAE. More recently, the outgoing Labour government proposed that greater and more overt emphasis should be given to the ‘impact’ of research in determining research ratings. This has been broadly endorsed by the new government.

The next research assessment exercise is scheduled to be conducted in 2014 and will be known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF will be similar in format to previous RAEs with the major exception that a specific, and as yet undetermined, weighting will be given to ‘Research Impact’. The final weighting for Impact could be as high as 25%, though this seems unlikely, and will be determined following various pilot exercises currently underway and covering a range of Units of Assessment. It has already been decided that Impacts must be underpinned by high quality research, will be ‘historical’, i.e. measured over a longer timeframe than the other REF performance indicators, and will be based on the overall portfolio of the relevant school or research unit, rather than measured for each researcher.

What does this mean for radiography departments in universities? The simplistic answer may be ‘not a lot’, since radiography has not featured strongly in past RAEs. However, one of the major arguments used in support of the development of radiography degree programmes and the transfer of radiography schools into universities, was that the profession and professional practice should be research-led. This pre-supposed that much of the underpinning research would be undertaken by radiographers. There are a variety of reasons why this has not occurred as extensively or as uniformly as may have been anticipated. Firstly, as one of the last of the healthcare professions to move to all-graduate entry, the development of radiography-related research in universities has had to take its place in the queue behind other emerging healthcare academic disciplines such as nursing, physiotherapy, dietetics etc. Secondly, the advent of intense research selectivity in universities has meant that little funds were available for supporting new areas with no previous research foundation. Thirdly, those healthcare professions with a developing, but hard-won research base have not, perhaps understandingly, been overly generous in supporting others to emerge. Forthly, and most importantly, research development requires leadership, commitment and time – all of which have been, inevitably, in short supply as the unit of teaching resource has declined in universities over the past 20 years.

Despite the somewhat negative picture just painted, there are some encouraging signs for the radiography profession. It is noteworthy that the number of good quality research-based papers being submitted to this journal, Radiography, appears to be on the increase. Where these have emerged from, or been developed in association with, academic departments, it is to be expected that they will feature in REF submissions. One important innovation of the 2008 RAE, and which will be repeated in the 2014 REF, is that instead of awarding a summative grading for each submission, a graded profile will be awarded. This should eliminate the tendency, in order to ensure a higher overall rating and a consequent increased funding outcome, of excluding worthy publications of national standard but which fail to reach international thresholds. The graded profile indicates the percentage of activity at each of four levels of performance within each submission; funding will then be allocated accordingly and without detriment to submissions with a significant sub-international level ‘tail’ of low performers.

One other significant change between the 2014 REF and the 2008 RAE is the reduction in the number of Units of Assessment from 67 to 36. In 2008, radiography was included in the Allied Health Professions and Studies UoA; in 2014 this has been merged with the UoAs for dentistry, nursing and pharmacy. Thus radiography will be an even smaller ‘cog’ in a much larger ‘wheel’. The effect that this amalgamation, and the distinct weighting to be given to Impact, will have on radiography performance is difficult to judge. On the one hand, the longer time frame to be used in assessing impact can only have detrimental consequences for emerging research areas and young departments. On the other hand, a practical and professional subject area such as radiography should have less difficulty in demonstrating Impact than less applied disciplines.

The new larger UoA Panels will carry a considerable responsibility in ensuring that each subject area is treated fairly in accordance with its appropriate range of research activities and methodologies. In some subject areas it is possible to, at least partially, assess quality on the basis of accepted refereeing standards of specific research periodicals. This is not possible for most of the allied health professions, where high quality work is published in a variety of outlets, some of which would not be well known outside of the relevant profession and the health service. The Panels which assessed the Allied Health Professions previously, accepted this reality and, where necessary, read all cited publications without prejudice. It is likely that this practice will prevail again in 2014. This is to be greatly welcomed since it allows researchers to publish without penalty in the most appropriate outlet. In this way, the work will be read and acted upon by peers, policy formulators and decision-makers, and, where appropriate, translated into applications for the benefit of patients and overall service provision and practice. In the spirit of the REF, this will result in the published research having the greatest Impact!

Original version of guest editorial published in Radiography, 2011.


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