Public engagement and the REF

What is the place of public engagement in the Research Excellence Framework?

At the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), we have worked hard to inform the development of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), to try to ensure it encourages high quality public engagement with research.    

There are significant opportunities to feature public engagement in impact case studies for submission to the next REF in 2021. In this section we explain what we have learned from the 2014 REF, building on an extensive review of the submitted case studies. 

REF, public engagement and impact

Researchers were encouraged in the REF 2014 guidance to submit case studies featuring public engagement. Many did. Our review suggests that nearly half of the submitted case studies made some mention of public engagement as a route to the claimed impacts. 

So what did excellent case studies do to present the contribution of public engagement in a convincing and credible way? In a nutshell, they offered a compelling narrative, which explained the links in the impact story, and provided credible evidence of the impacts claimed.  In doing so, they typically addressed the following prompts: 

  • What? A convincing account of the significance of the research and why it matters beyond academia. Who should care about it? What is distinctive about its potential?  

  • Where? An explicit, intelligent acknowledgement of the external context, and a clear grasp of the potential contribution of the research to influence thinking, practice and people’s capabilities beyond academia  

  • Who with? A clear articulation of the key publics and partners involved and a rationale for their involvement, with clear insight and knowledge about their interests, motivations and needs in relation to the research  

  • Why? A confident sense of purpose animating the engagement that underpins the impact claimed  

  • When? An intelligent sense of timing to maximise the potential impact of the engagement activity, with activities differentiated by the phase of the research  

  • How? Drawing on appropriate methods, tailored to purpose, context and the publics they are seeking to engage  

  • With what impact? A convincing account of the difference it has helped to generate, and credible claims for the contribution made by the research to that impact 

You can find our more in our full review. We also offer training and development to help universities develop their approach. 

What next? 

Lord Stern was invited to review the 2014 REF and make recommendations for 2021.  In doing so, he made a number of recommendations which have been picked up by the funding councils.  One was to strengthen the guidance about public engagement.  We are currently working with the REF team at HEFCE to inform the draft guidelines for the assessment of public engagement in REF 2021.  We are planning a workshop in 2018 to share our thinking.  Make sure you have signed up to our newsletter to receive advance notice of this. 

You can find out more about our work to support REF 2014 here, and our response to the recent consultation on the next REF.