by Rebekah Smith McGloin and Rachel Handforth, Nottingham Trent University
Research excellence’ is a ubiquitous concept to which we are mostly habituated in the UK research ecosystem. Yet, at the end of an academic year which saw the publication of UKRI EDI Strategy, four UKRI council reviews of their investments in PGR, House of Commons inquiry on Reproducibility and Research Integrity and following on from the development of manifesto, concordat, declaration and standards to support Open Research in recent years, it feels timely to engage in some critical reflection on cultures of excellence in research.
The notion of ‘excellence’ has become an increasingly important part of the research ecosystem over the last 20 years (OECD, 2014). The drivers for this are traced to the need to justify the investment of public money in research and the increasing competition for scarce resources (Münch, 2015). University rankings have further hardwired and amplified judgments about degrees of excellence into our collective consciousness (Hazelkorn, 2015).
Jong, Franssen and Pinfield (2021) highlight that the idea of excellence is a ‘boundary object’ (Star and Griesemer, 1989) however. That is, it is a nebulous construct which is poorly defined and is used in many different ways. It has nevertheless shaped policy, funding and assessment activities since the turn of the century. Ideas of excellence have been enacted through the Research Excellence Framework and associated allocation to universities of funding to support research, competitive schemes for grant funding, recruitment to flagship doctoral training partnerships and individual promotion and reward.
We can trace a number of recent initiatives at sector level, inter alia, that have sought to broaden ideas of research excellence and to challenge systemic and structural inequalities in our research ecosystem. These include the increase of impact weighting in REF2021 to 25%, trials of systems of partial randomisation as part of the selection process for some smaller research grants, e.g. British Academy from 2022, the Concordats and Agreements Review work in 2023 to align and increase influence, capacity, and efficiency of activity to support research culture and the recent Research England investment in projects designed to address the broken pipeline into research by increasing participation of people from racialised groups in doctoral education.
At the end of June, we are hosting an event at NTU which will focus on redefining cultures of research excellence through the lens of inclusion. The symposium, to be held at our Clifton Campus on Wednesday 28 June, provides an opportunity to re-examine the broad notion of research excellence, in the context of systemic inequalities that have historically locked out certain types of researchers and research agendas and locked in others.
The event focuses on two mutually-reinforcing areas: the possibility of creating more responsive and inclusive research agendas through co-creation between academics and communities; and broadening pathways into research through the inclusive recruitment of PhD and early career researchers. We take the starting position that approaches which focus on advancing equity are critical to achieving excellence in UK research and innovation.
The day will include keynotes from Dr Bernadine Idowu and Professor Kalwant Bhopal, the launch of a new competency-based PGR recruitment framework, based on sector consultation, and a programme of speakers talking about their approaches to diversifying researcher recruitment and engaging the community in setting research agendas.
NTU will be showcasing two new projects that are designed to challenge old ideas of research excellence and forge new ways of thinking. EDEPI (Equity in Doctoral Education through Partnership and Innovation Programme) is a partnership with Liverpool John Moores and Sheffield Hallam Universities and NHS Trusts in the three cities. The project will explore how working with the NHS can improve access and participation in doctoral education for racially-minoritised groups. Co(l)laboratory is a project with University of Nottingham, based on the Universities for Nottingham civic agreement with local public-sector organisations. Collab will present early lessons from a community-informed approach to cohort-based doctoral training.
Our event is a great opportunity for universities and other organisations who are, in their own ways, redefining cultures of research excellence to share their approaches, challenges and successes. We invite individuals, project teams and organisations working in these areas to join us at the end of June, with the hope of building a community of practice around building inclusive research cultures, within and across the sector.
Dr Rebekah Smith McGloin is Director of the Doctoral School at Nottingham Trent University and is Principal Investigator on the EDEPI and Co(l)laboratory projects.
Dr Rachel Handforth is Senior Lecturer in Doctoral Education and Civic Engagement at NTU.