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Public Engagement & the REF: A process of judgement, not measurement…

by Caroline Gillett, Public Engagement with Research Officer.

I recently attended a NCCPE event which addressed the relevant questions in the current HECFE consultation on the future of the REF, in the light of what we have learned from REF 2014. In a true act of public engagement, the event primarily offered an opportunity for the NCCPE to present their draft response to the sector for feedback and discussion. The workshop also featured a particularly useful Q&A session with Steven Hill (Head of Research Policy, HECFE).

This blog post aims to capture my own key ‘take-home’ messages. Information here is not presented as fact or verbatim, and no decisions have as yet been made by HEFCE on REF 2021 guidelines. This post also assumes you have some knowledge of the REF 2014 process. If not, feel free to drop in to a Breakfast Brainstorm session and I’d be happy to go over the basics with you if interested.

The HEFCE Consultation poses a number of questions which have particular relevance to / implications for public engagement in the REF process. Namely:

Discussions clustered around four themes which I’ve attempted to broadly summarize below:

Enhancing public engagement guidance

Broadening & deepening the paradigm of impact

Underpinning research

Encouraging better collaboration


Ultimately however, REF remains a process of judgement, not measurement. It is a myth to assume that you can evidence impact without a compelling story. Knowing what story you want to tell can seem difficult, particularly as impact has an interesting habit of taking you places you might never have envisioned at the very beginning of a project. That’s normal, that’s expected. Impact is not a linear process and no one expects it to be. Transparency around aims, audiences and rationale in a public engagement context are key though. Yet many still become transfixed on the activity itself as a starting point. Instead, looking for the external context to motivate activity is where your public engagement story† might begin to take more meaningful shape…

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[Written with thanks to the NCCPE for a useful event. The NCCPE welcome your reactions to their current draft response. Contact by March 10th, 2017 to input. For information on public engagement in REF2014, you may find my previous blog post useful, or better yet read the newly launched NCCPE report which goes into much more detail]

Additional content

General comments:

From the Q&A:

Could a case for the economic impact of public engagement activity (e.g. media based work) be turned in to an impact case study?

Yes. However, Hill remarked that although this was possible, the question remained as to whether this was desirable. The suggestion here being perhaps that telling a story in which public engagement was primarily motivated by the prospects of economic return would be challenging and/or odd in the very least.

Would members of the general public join the panels?

No. Hill provided a very reasonable response to this question stating:

Can there be a public engagement expert on each sub-panel/main panel?

Possible, but unlikely. This would open the door to requests for experts in a variety of others areas (e.g. tech transfer specialists) and panels would simply be unable to accommodate those with expertise in each area.

There was a suggestion that sub-panels might have members who also meet outside of each group as an interdisciplinary group to calibrate activity. Calibration of impact at panel level had proven useful last time around and this could feasibly include some calibration of public engagement activity specifically in future.

Would the NCCPE be invited to join the panels?

Possibly. However, it was more likely that the NCCPE would be invited to run training sessions for panel members in the lead up to assessment. This was the case last time.

*Background to the consultation:

HEFCE have launched a consultation to inform REF2021. The questions within this relate to the recommendations put forward by the review of REF2014 carried out by Lord Stern.

The Stern Review issued recommendations including…

“Recommendation 7: Guidance on the REF should make it clear that impact case studies should not be narrowly interpreted, need not solely focus on socioeconomic impacts but should also include impact on government policy, on public engagement and understanding, on cultural life, on academic impacts outside the field, and impacts on teaching.”

NCCPE has found that most public engagement case studies fell into one (or some blend) of these three storylines:

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