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Huge team effort on REF is rewarded by a fantastic result and memorable week


It was an enormous undertaking from our research and support staff to submit to the REF process – Dr Barbara Pittam reflects on a memorable week for The Institute of Cancer Research.

Posted on 18 December, 2014 by Barbara Pittam

Dr Barbara Pittam is Registrar and Director of Academic Services at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, which came top in definitive rankings of UK research quality announced today in Times Higher Education. Dr Pittam led a team of staff in submitting our application to the evaluation, called the Research Excellence Framework or REF2014.

This has certainly been one of the more memorable weeks in my career. It was an enormous undertaking from our research and support staff to submit to the REF process – and to come out top of all the higher education institutions in the UK in the definitive rankings of research quality is fantastic.

To come top once – as we did the last time this evaluation was carried out, in 2008 – was brilliant. But to maintain our position against all the other world-famous universities across the UK, with improved scores, is even better. It’s a very strong vindication of the quality of our research.

It is also an endorsement of our unique partnership with The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, which enables us to carry out translational and clinical research and to systematically turn our discoveries into improved outcomes for patients.

The process

It was a huge team effort. On the academic side, we had our REF Working Group chaired by Professor Clare Isacke, our former Chief Executive Professor Alan Ashworth, current Chief Executive Professor Paul Workman, Director of Research Professor Chris Marshall, and Heads and Deputy Heads of Division – who reviewed nominated publications and text. All researchers responded to our requests for information.

We couldn’t have managed our submission without substantial input from our Academic Services staff – who provide essential support for our scientists – as well as our Enterprise Unit, Research Operations team, Finance and HR.

I’ve likened the process of submitting impact case studies to the REF to writing up a PhD thesis with 20 supervisors – because the sum total of the case studies was the size of a ‘thesis’ and each chapter had to be ‘signed off’ by a team of academic staff who had contributed to the research being described at various stages. To make matters worse, there were so many different potential audiences that we needed to satisfy – not just two examiners who knew something about the field in question.

The scale of the work involved in the REF is matched only by its importance to UK universities. It governs the distribution of research funds from Government and, with the inclusion of the impact element, increasingly plays a vital role in demonstrating to policy makers the enormous strength of UK research overall. With a spending review coming up next year, it’s important evidence that UK Universities are deserving of continued investment.

Our results

I’m delighted that as well as coming first overall, and joint first in terms of the quality of the research papers published by our academics, we came out top for the impact of our research. It’s the first time benefit to society has been measured in this process. The fact we are ranked first shows that our research strategy, which combines a rigorous academic focus on the causes and molecular mechanism of cancer with a relentless drive to translate our work for patients, really works. It demonstrates the importance too of our collaborative approach with our clinical partner The Royal Marsden, other academic organisations and with industry.

In biological sciences we scored particularly well – again coming above every other higher education institution. The research studies we submitted to this unit of assessment were the fundamental discoveries about the biology of cancer – so called ‘basic science’ – and it is very important that processes like the REF continue to recognise that without these discoveries there is nothing for others to build on.

It seems unfair to single out individual achievements – except to say that all the major areas of our research were covered, from studies into the genetics and biology of cancers, to drug discovery, radiotherapy and imaging, and clinical trials – and we were one of only a small number of higher education institutions to submit more than 95 per cent of eligible staff.

It was a massive team effort across the ICR, and it’s fantastic that our efforts have been so richly rewarded in today’s scores. We now await the funding consequences with some trepidation – coming top last time resulted in a 10 per cent drop in quality related (QR) funding. Let’s hope this is one achievement we do not repeat!

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