Jessica Corner: reforms may ‘substantially shift’ REF weightings

New Research England head reflects on her roundabout route into academia and the future of research evaluation

January 5, 2023
Source: UKRI

Working as a cancer nurse in London in the mid-1980s, Dame Jessica Corner’s ambition to do a PhD faced a major barrier.

“I was 26 and had a mortgage, so living on a studentship wasn’t affordable, even though my nurse’s salary wasn’t huge,” recalled the new executive chair of Research England.

Having thrived during her research-based nursing degree at the University of London, an unusual training route at the time, Dame Jessica knew she wanted to follow it up with a doctorate – which was eventually funded by what is now Cancer Research UK. “The crucial thing was that I did it on my salary, and continued with my clinical training,” reflected Dame Jessica, named in 2018 as one of the 70 most influential nurses in the NHS’ history for her research that has led to improved cancer care services.

With UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s five-year strategy and the government’s R&D Roadmap stressing the need to encourage and support diverse research careers – looking beyond the standard postgrad-PhD-postdoc researcher journey – Dame Jessica’s roundabout route into academia may have lessons for today. “The problems faced by the health service, in particular, need these different research perspectives; we need to make huge advances on questions like: ‘How do we restructure our organisations?’ or address health inequalities. If we have more people involved, I think we’ll get better answers,” said Dame Jessica, previously a professor of cancer and supportive care and most recently pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Nottingham.

Thanks to its development funds supporting innovative institution-level projects, worth £27 million annually, Research England plays an important role in galvanising change, she explained. Its £3 million for the Talent project recognising university technician careers showed how relatively small awards could have huge impact, she insisted. “In that case, we needed to do something and, with some very passionate leadership on the ground, [the grant] has been extraordinarily powerful,” explained Dame Jessica, who is hopeful that many of the projects supported by £60 million for improving research culture in the past two years will have similarly transformative effects.

Taking the Research England role was a “great opportunity to think how our research system works and what it needs to remain healthy and dynamic”, she added.

By far the biggest funding stream at Research England is the £2 billion or so it distributes annually to universities via the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the latest results of which were announced last May. Discussions over the future of the REF are well under way, with detailed suggestions for reform likely to emerge in the summer, said Dame Jessica.

Several reports published in mid-December tended to reflect her own thinking on the REF, she said. “On the potential use of AI, the argument is pretty much settled – it’s not ready,” concluded Dame Jessica, who was similarly sceptical about arguments for extending the use of bibliometrics to assess quality, an attitude reflected in the recent Harnessing the Metric Tide report, which revisited the 2015 Metric Tide study.

“We know there are problems around diversity with metrics,” she said, referring to evidence that women and under-represented groups lose out when quality boils down to citations. “The Metric Tide Revisited [study] makes the argument that there are a broader set of indicators we should consider, rather than simply how much research is read or referenced. If we are thinking about the broader research environment, we have to assess these things,” she said on the idea that “data for good” metrics covering gender pay gaps, research leave and time set aside for peer review could be included in REF deliberations.

The study also suggests rebalancing the importance attached to various elements of the REF, giving more weight to research environment, worth 15 per cent of a university’s score in the 2021 exercise, at the expense of outputs (worth 60 per cent) or impact (25 per cent). Would an equal weighting, as mooted by one of its authors, perhaps be preferable? “We are certainly looking at the balance and thinking about shifting it substantially,” said Dame Jessica, who rejected any suggestion that the REF had run its course, having produced similar institution-level outcomes in recent exercises.

“We allocate a huge amount of money through the REF, so there is the accountability element, but I do think, on balance, it has helped to drive research performance, too.”

With the government recently funnelling an additional £100 million of Horizon Europe replacement funds through the quality-related (QR) REF funding system, its value and standing in Whitehall has once again been demonstrated, said Dame Jessica. “There is no perfect way to distribute funding quickly, so we settled on QR. It’s as good a model – one without forms or research calls – as any to assess and reward research quality in short order.”


Print headline: ‘Research needs to remain dynamic’

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles


Featured jobs