The REF word

No one is mentioning the REF-word… yet. Sure, there’s endless chatter about the Research Excellence Framework (REF to anyone who gives a toss) and a multitude of associated words. And these words will generate a billion other words, making sentences, paragraphs, guidelines, policies, reviews, assessments, appeal and resignation letters, emails and tweets. Yet all of these words will all be, when everything has been said and done, just words. They are not the REF-word.

Because in months, maybe a year, or maybe two, there will be only one word that matters, and it will blow REF 2021 apart. And it is already arguably too late for the REF-lords – the funding councils’ chiselled gods and goddesses who, I like to imagine, sit, arms folded and legs outstretched behind over-sized, red-leathered desks in Edinburgh and Belfast… and, er, Caerphilly and Swindon – to do anything to vitiate the word’s destructive power. The REF-word’s power grows as deadlines approach, such that what is either unidentified or is being ignored now will smother and deafen those who didn’t listen when it was softly spoken.

Because the REF-word is bullying.

There’s an increasing slew of voices raised about bullying in academia. It’s a long standing problem, in some instances probably institutionalised. I am not talking here about the bullying that flows from the whole darn beast that is the REF, although that is certainly happening now: fixing internal reviews to score petty points (or worse), wrangling over authorship. Some of this the disappointing consequence of a competitive process where the rules of the game are interpreted by small, shallow networks making secretive and obscure evaluations of research: obscure because research is, almost by definition, at its best when it asks questions that challenge and test the boundaries of convention and power.  I’m not talking about bullying within panels themselves. That might happen too, but the vast majority of those I know who are serving on panels (including all at my current institution) are good, fair people doing hard work. No, I am talking about the handful of panel members who have, throughout their careers, been widely recognised as persistent and egregious bullies. And, I’d hazard a guess, we all know there are some.

The problem of bullying in academia has arguably always been present, but it is now becoming increasingly visible. It is almost unimaginably courageous to complain; but suddenly people are calling the bullies out. Funders are cancelling grants. Employers, noticeably more slowly, are terminating contracts. And the press is getting interested; that’s never a good sign. And when the Daily Mail joins the dots between bullying and public money, and no doubt runs this into some sort of liberal no-platforming, trigger-warning scandal, it will not just undermine universities, but the whole validity of academia itself. So besides the self-evident fact that bullying is abhorrent, it is without question terrible PR because we have personal accounts of bullying, testimony, and typically painful and protracted litigation to add colour to any tabloid article. From that PR perspective the damage from a single case can be limited to a lab or a single institutional failure. But if those judging the research – the auditors of quality – are found to include bullies, the damage to research’s reputation is harder to contain.

Perhaps it’s timely to remind ourselves of what constitutes bullying. A helpful UNISON guide outlines the types of bullying which include: ignoring views and opinions; withholding information which can affect a worker’s performance; setting unreasonable or impossible deadlines or unmanageable workloads; humiliating staff in front of others; intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities; ridiculing or demeaning someone by picking on them or setting them up to fail; spreading malicious rumours… Any of that sound familiar? I thought so.

One big problem in academia is that it’s such a small world that many don’t speak out for fear of fatally infecting their future career prospects. It is a particularly pernicious bind for junior colleagues. It’s not hard to see why: complaining about a bullying senior academic in a sub-field or specialism which, likely, has only around 50-80 active researchers in the world, risks rumour and gossip making your name mud in that field for years to come. But that small world issue perhaps comes with a silver lining: in any field most people know who the bullies are – they’ve invariably been on the receiving end of something or other. And that’s terrible news for the REF: many people know who the bullies on the panels are. And, like the global one, the academic climate has changed: there are many who no longer feel they have much to lose speaking out. Once the flood gates are breached, and they will breach, the game will be over.

Perhaps the “REF lords” will blame the institutions of failing to act early enough. That is folly and misses the point. Firstly, because they independently chose who to appoint, they cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for conducting some sort of reputational check on appointments. The system works as a network and alliance between funder and universities. So, secondly, to cast all blame to the universities for REF panel appointments would be facile because to do that would fracture irredeemably a core relationship on which the whole research system works. And, thirdly, because bullying thrives when those who can and should act disown the problem. It would be a cowardly absolution of responsibility where, on the most generous interpretation, the funding councils would become bystanders to numerous acts of injustice. And we know, don’t we, that it is those who stand by, those who sit on fences, who enable the bullying and are the real source of the problem? Universities, funders, all of us need to own the problem. Indeed, perhaps all of us need to start hearing, and speaking out the REF word a little more regardless of any offence it may cause.