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‘Impact’ in the proposals for the UK's Research Excellence Framework: Shifting the boundaries of academic autonomy


  • Smith, Simon
  • Ward, Vicky
  • House, Allan


Evaluation of university-based research already has a reasonably long tradition in the UK, but proposals to revise the framework for national evaluation aroused controversy in the academic community because they envisage assessing more explicitly than before the economic, social and cultural ‘impact’ of research as well as its scientific quality. Using data from the 2009 public consultation on the proposals for a Research Excellence Framework, this paper identifies three main lines of controversy: the threats to academic autonomy implied in the definition of expert review and the delimitation of reviewers, the scope for boundary-work in the construction of impact narratives and case studies, and the framing of knowledge translation by the stipulation that impact ‘builds on’ research. Given the behaviour-shaping effects of research evaluation, the paper demonstrates how the proposed changes could help embed impact considerations among the routine reflexive tools of university researchers and enhance rather than restrict academic autonomy at the level of research units. It also argues that the REF could constitute an important dialogical space for negotiating science–society relations in an era of increasing heteronomy between academia, state and industry. But the paper raises doubts about whether the proposed operationalisation of impact is adequate to evaluate the ways that research and knowledge translation are actually carried out.

Suggested Citation

  • Smith, Simon & Ward, Vicky & House, Allan, 2011. "‘Impact’ in the proposals for the UK's Research Excellence Framework: Shifting the boundaries of academic autonomy," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 40(10), pages 1369-1379.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:respol:v:40:y:2011:i:10:p:1369-1379
    DOI: 10.1016/j.respol.2011.05.026

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Linda Butler & Ian McAllister, 2009. "Metrics or Peer Review? Evaluating the 2001 UK Research Assessment Exercise in Political Science," Political Studies Review, Political Studies Association, vol. 7(1), pages 3-17.
    2. Benner, Mats & Sandstrom, Ulf, 2000. "Institutionalizing the triple helix: research funding and norms in the academic system," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 29(2), pages 291-301, February.
    3. Claire Donovan, 2007. "Introduction: Future pathways for science policy and research assessment: Metrics vs peer review, quality vs impact," Science and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, vol. 34(8), pages 538-542, October.
    4. Linda Butler, 2007. "Assessing university research: A plea for a balanced approach," Science and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, vol. 34(8), pages 565-574, October.
    5. Katharine Barker, 2007. "The UK Research Assessment Exercise: the evolution of a national research evaluation system," Research Evaluation, Oxford University Press, vol. 16(1), pages 3-12, March.
    6. Claire Donovan, 2009. "Gradgrinding the Social Sciences: The Politics of Metrics of Political Science," Political Studies Review, Political Studies Association, vol. 7(1), pages 73-83.
    7. Grit Laudel, 2006. "Conclave in the Tower of Babel: how peers review interdisciplinary research proposals," Research Evaluation, Oxford University Press, vol. 15(1), pages 57-68, April.
    8. Loet Leydesdorff & Henry Etzkowitz, 1996. "Emergence of a Triple Helix of university—industry—government relations," Science and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, vol. 23(5), pages 279-286, October.
    9. Heinze, Thomas & Shapira, Philip & Rogers, Juan D. & Senker, Jacqueline M., 2009. "Organizational and institutional influences on creativity in scientific research," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 38(4), pages 610-623, May.
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    Cited by:

    1. Berlemann, Michael & Haucap, Justus, 2015. "Which factors drive the decision to opt out of individual research rankings? An empirical study of academic resistance to change," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 44(5), pages 1108-1115.
    2. Richard McManus & Karen Mumford & Cristina Sechel, 2017. "The Selection of Economics Lecturers into the 2014 UK Research Excellence Framework Exercise: Outputs and Gender," Discussion Papers 17/16, Department of Economics, University of York.
    3. repec:eee:respol:v:46:y:2017:i:10:p:1769-1782 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. Shortt, Niamh K. & Pearce, Jamie & Mitchell, Richard & Smith, Katherine E., 2016. "Taking health geography out of the academy: Measuring academic impact," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 168(C), pages 265-272.
    5. repec:spr:scient:v:95:y:2013:i:1:d:10.1007_s11192-012-0908-1 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. repec:spr:scient:v:99:y:2014:i:1:d:10.1007_s11192-013-1103-8 is not listed on IDEAS
    7. Huang, Haijie & Lee, Edward & Lyu, Changjiang & Zhu, Zhenmei, 2016. "The effect of accounting academics in the boardroom on the value relevance of financial reporting information," International Review of Financial Analysis, Elsevier, vol. 45(C), pages 18-30.
    8. Rebora, Gianfranco & Turri, Matteo, 2013. "The UK and Italian research assessment exercises face to face," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 42(9), pages 1657-1666.
    9. Irwin Feller, 2013. "Peer review and expert panels as techniques for evaluating the quality of academic research," Chapters,in: Handbook on the Theory and Practice of Program Evaluation, chapter 5, pages 115-142 Edward Elgar Publishing.


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