CHEPS International Seminar: Unpicking the paradoxes of competitive accountability: Impact in the Research Excellence Framework Dr Richard Watermeyer, University of Bath

Within this presentation a sociological lens will be focused on the machinery (and machinations) of research governance to elucidate what Watermeyer and Tomlinson (2018) refer to as a culture of 'competitive accountability' that has become endemic within the UK higher education sector. It will present empirical data from three cognate studies of the UK's performance based research funding system, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), and specifically a new aspect of performance evaluation, the economic and societal impact of research. 'Impact' in the REF will be considered from the purview of:

  • evaluators (both academic and non-academic/research users) populating disciplinary sub-panels spanning the social sciences and humanities
  • members of the UK parliamentary community (reported as a primary research user/impact recipient)
  • academics including within REF2014 impact case studies.

Five core paradoxes related to impact in the REF as ‘competitive accountability’ are proposed:

  1. The intensification of scientific regulation through impact in the REF fails as an ameliorative intervention and instead stimulates academic gamesmanship and scientific misconduct.
  2. ‘Competitive accountability’ serves not to legitimize public patronage of science but justifies the distrust of scientists where scientists’ assertions are found to be disingenuous.
  3. ‘Competitive accountability’ demands an investment in mode-2 models of knowledge production and a mode-2 society but is corruptive to the kinds of trust (autonomy and freedom) necessary for meaningful and sustained interaction and collaboration between different knowledge constituencies.
  4. A lack of consultation by evaluators of the underpinning evidence of impact case studies in the REF is unscientific and demonstrates how a process of competitive accountability is governed by an approach more akin to ‘policy-informed evidence’ (Henderson 2012) than Mertonian norms.
  5. A concern with the social function of research/researchers as pursued by an impact agenda confuses and is antagonistic to the scientific function of research and a category of excellence, ostensibly particularly so for STEM and STEM related disciplinary fields. It is, however, also suggestive of a new form of ‘scholarly distinction’ (Watermeyer and Chubb forthcoming) different to traditional notions of scientific excellence.   

Richard Watermeyer is Reader of Education and Director of Research in the Department of Education at the University of Bath. He is by training and orientation a sociologist of education with interests in higher education policy, practice and pedagogy. He has published over 80 journal articles, books, book chapters, commissioned reports and articles predominantly on issues of scientific governance. His latest books – Pedagogical Peculiarities (Brill/Sense); The Impact Agenda (Policy Press); Competitive Accountability in Academic Life (Edward Elgar) – all focus on issues of scientific praxis and governance as informed by and in resistance to the political transformation of the university.