Britain's new science minister, David Willetts of the Conservative Party, today made good a manifesto pledge today when he announced that the coalition government would delay for 1 year the implementation of the controversial Research Excellence Framework (REF), a system of assessing university departments for the distribution of funding. REF sought to assess departments via metrics including publication impact factor. But some academics criticized the system because they perceived that it focused on the "impact" of research in society at large rather than on its scientific merit. It was believed that this would restrict academic freedom. They also argued that impact was difficult to measure in an impartial way.
In the funding of research at universities, the U.K. government has two funding streams: project grants that are awarded to researchers and funds for departmental overheads that are given directly to universities. Which departments get this extra funding and how much was formerly judged by a process called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Every few years, researchers would submit their best publications, and RAE peer review panels would assess them and give departments a grading. The aim of REF was to replace this cumbersome process with something more systematic.
The extra year's delay, Willetts says, will give funding bodies and academics time to digest a pilot impact-assessment exercise that finishes this autumn. REF will now premiere in 2014 and be applied to funding from 2015.