Sometimes I wish I were dead

“Right now Krusty’s up in heaven with all those other great dead celebrities: John Dillinger, Ty Cobb, Josef Stalin (sigh) I wish I were dead”. -Homer Simpson

I was just flicking through the ‘REF2014 Panel criteria: Examples of complex circumstances’ document. If ever anyone needed evidence of the stupidity of the REF system this is surely the place to look. I must admit I’ve not paid full attention to it. Primarily I’ve been looking to see what is the best ‘complex circumstance’ to have and wondering how or why someone would not only tell their employer but also want all this information recording for REF purposes.  Oh, and laughing.  I’ve been laughing at it.

Some of the hypothetical cases are tragic, some funny, some (in my opinion) part of life and should be, in the words of my old football coach, “jogged off”.

What’s really interesting is that the document implies that the REF panels take account of the unit of assessment. So, in one example, a physicist is given a reduced tariff because of a flood in the lab she used and the wheelchair access she needed was not available at any other labs. The case says ‘While the laboratory was being refurbished it was agreed that she would focus on her teaching responsibilities’. And this sort of makes me think that no reduction would be needed as it’s not that different from saying ‘I’ve focused on teaching for a term (for whatever reason)’.  Surely this is something most academics do at some point especially now we have to be more sensitive to delivery customer value?  Yet, the REF panel advises that in this case the research should have a tariff reduced by 1 output.

Lets not get bogged down in one example though.  In another, a politics researcher who adopted a child (outside of the REF period) suffers the death of his wife. This means he now has to collect his child from school for most of the REF period. The explanation says: ‘the panel recognises that caring for an adopted child who experienced the loss of an adoptive parent not long after adoption would have had an impact on his ability to produce research at a similar rate to his peers’.  Now the interesting word in this sentence is ‘would’.  It’s not ‘could’, ‘should’ or ‘may’.  But would.  And this makes this statement untrue.  Those experiences could have impacted his research but they could have not done so too.  There’s just no way to know.  Either way, reduced output = 1 paper.

One last example, imagine a woman, a woman intent on becoming a man.  The REF panel has.  In their case, the man needs 7 months off work for medical treatments and then has to go to a 0.5 contract for 5 months.  Along with this time off, he’s had strained personal relationship which ‘impacted upon his ability to focus on his research’ throughout the REF period.  Moreover, proving that names don’t count and blind review really happens he ‘has had to rebuild his research reputation on the basis of his new name and his presentation as a man’.  That comes to a total of 9.5 months off work and a claim for stress for the entire REF period. I know what you’re thiinking, this dude’s got it made, surely they won’t need to submit anything.  Well, not quite.  Reduced tariff = 1 paper.  (In another one male researcher takes 9.2 months off work to care for his wife after she was diagnosed with MS, he also gets 1 reduced output.  As I say, I’ve not looked through systematically yet but there does also seem to be a trend for women getting a pretty easy ride.  In one case, a woman makes a claim for 6 months ‘off research’ due to breast feeding this was ‘incompatible with her research project that requires frequent travel to South Sudan’.  That’s bonkers.  Sorry Maria, it is).

So that’s: 4 months focusing on teaching because there’s not access ramp to a physics lab = 1 paper.  And 9.5 months off work completely and 5 years of stress = 1 paper.  Err, I’m guessing they didn’t use a calculator in preparing the document.  Indeed, the odd thing about all of this is the REF period is 4 outputs in 5 years.  So that’s 4 outputs in 60 months or 1 output every 15 months.  Yet we see the REF reducing the tariffs for 4 months of complex circumstances?

Now I appreciate that the REF is trying to be compassionate here.  But it stinks off not swearing in a slaughterhouse to me.  This entire cumbersome apparatus is basically born of the fact that the REF is nothing other than a measure of individuals even as it claim to be completely the opposite.

This brings me to my final point, the REF panel seems to work on the assumption that researchers only work on one project at any time and that a complex circumstances can arise that interferes not with the ability to research per se but the ability to research THAT PROJECT.  Perhaps the lesson is to consider back-ups plans when designing projects or even working on more than one thing at a time.  Isn’t that what everyone does anyway?  Not according to the REF document.

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