Is Unconscious Bias Relevant to REF 2021?

3rd October 2019

Universities are preparing themselves for the biggest shake-up in the way the quality of their research is evaluated since 2014. The Research Excellence Framework 2021 (REF 2021) brings with it many far-reaching changes that will impact how universities plan and execute their submissions and how they ensure that the tenets of Equity, Equality, and Transparency, Consistency, Accountability and Inclusivity are embedded throughout the entire REF 2021 submission process.

Inequalities in the REF 2014?

Since the REF exercise in 2014, it became clear that the old system unwittingly disadvantaged certain groups of people such as early career researchers, women, ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, serious illnesses and caring responsibilities. In fact, according to the report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (now Research England), despite improvements from the 2008 REF exercise, an analysis of the data from the 2014 REF demonstrates that only 51% of eligible female staff were submitted for REF 2014 compared to 67% of eligible male staff[1]. Similar inequalities were found when comparing eligible able-bodied to disabled staff members where 47% selected compared to 61% non-disabled[2] as well as those from different ethnic origins[3]

This data speaks for itself, and shows the bias against certain groups in the REF process. Therefore, it is vital that we are aware of how our biases can inform our decision making even at the unconscious level. These biases can lead to an accumulation of micro inequities that over the course of a career lead to substantial differences in outcome for certain individuals and groups.

Such discrimination might also arise due to biases directed against research methodologies or research topics that are associated with particular protected characteristics. For example, in many disciplines it is possible to observe that women researchers are particularly drawn to research on certain sub-fields. It’s important that research in those sub-fields are not under-valued due to implicit or explicit bias. The same applies to research directly involving some of the protected characteristics discussed above, such as research into sexual orientation.

The ramifications of allowing inequities to continue

Institutions need to take into account issues of equality and fairness when it comes to deciding which academic and research staff members are submitted for the REF 2021 or take into account individual circumstances that may impact a researcher’s ability to produce the required number of outputs. The impact of not taking action could adversely influence researchers status and career progression. This could lead to a loss of morale and affect retention of diverse talent.

By not instituting a fair and transparent process in identifying researchers who could submit in REF 2021 through institutional or personal biases, then the overall REF outcome could be affected with consequent loss or status and funding. Universities need to ensure that any protected characteristic or other criteria like career status or full time/part-time statuses do not influence selection for submission.

Ultimately if conscious or unconscious biases are allowed to influence selection groups and committees, not to mention the expert panels and sub panels, then research that could potentially prove highly beneficial to the university and society could fail to have an impact. This in turn would lead to a failure to innovate and compete with other institutions on the global stage.

The solution

To combat these inequities, the new REF 2021 guidelines have instructed universities on eligibility criteria for submission and how research outputs are calculated so that the tenets of Equity, Equality, and Transparency are at the core of every decision process when preparing the REF submission. Part of this is also the introduction on mandatory Unconscious Bias training and Codes of Practice to ensure fairness throughout the submission process.

It is the aim of every university in the UK to gain an excellent REF score (as it impacts everything from academic reputation, allocation of funding for research and league table position). Therefore it is critical that those involved in the REF 2021 submission are fully aware of the potential implications to the university and to staff member’s careers and that they do not allow bias to inform their decision making and risk the strength and diversity of the research community.

So what can you do to mitigate the risks of Unconscious Bias and ensure compliance with the REF 2021?

Being aware that we all have unconscious biases is an important step in becoming more mindful of the factors that may be influencing our decision making. Therefore, proper training in the features of unconscious bias, why it occurs and how it occurs, are key to mitigate its influences. At Marshall’s, we specialise in this training and offer bespoke solutions on unconscious bias with particular reference to the REF 2021. Click here to view our REF 2021 course.

Contact us today for a demo or to find out more.

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