In a moment of frivolity Athene Donald sketched out how a REF committee in a dysfunctional department might pan out. As chair of her own local REF committee she is delighted to say my own  experiences bear no relationship to this sad state of affairs, however complex our discussions may get.

It’s been a long time since I’ve visited  the Department of Paintball Studies, but I thought it was time to drop in to see how they were progressing with their preparations for the REF (Research Excellence Framework for non UK readers; what follows may seem a little parochial).

Tempers were decidedly frayed at the last departmental committee meeting discussing progress on their submission, as every element seemed to cause friction. The long-running argument about which sub-panel their Unit of Assessment was to be entered for had been resolved some months ago by a diktat from on high: Sports and Exercise Science it was to be. No one had actually quite come out and said ‘You, Engineers? Ha!’, but the silence every time the Head of Department had hinted that some of his staff thought that was where they belonged had been deafening. Ultimately, those parts of the department most opposed to this choice had subsided into irritated acquiescence, but it clearly is doing nothing to improve the atmosphere when proposed outputs are being scored, since certain individuals have not spoken to each other since the decision had been made.

Even if everyone was on speaking terms, it was always going to be a challenge trying to assess how a rather bad monograph on the relevance of paintballing to help unravel the philosophy of aggression and war compares with 2 highly technical outputs on the trigger action and nozzle design of paintguns, (well regarded by the 3 people who have read the papers and gone on to cite them, but otherwise fairly invisible). This is made all the worse as these topics do not sit comfortably under a Sports Science umbrella. On the other hand, Dr Ogle, who had spent much of the last year working up – and even publishing – ideas on the comparative value of using paintball gear versus beachballs (accompanied by the requirement for females to don bikinis), felt very smug that his work fitted right in to a ‘sporting’ panel. Consequently he expected to get a set of straight 4*s ( although a ghost of the phrase ‘dream on’ could be heard floating across the committee room sotto voce every time he showed signs of triumphalism on this score).

The 10 page document released by ‘the centre’ regarding how diversity issues should be included in the Environment Statement had the Head of Department spluttering into his coffee. His imagination was running riot at the idea that his entire department might beat a path to his door demanding maternity leave, something his brain had clearly not got to grips with previously. Dr Jobsworth deftly managed to defuse the situation by pointing out that only one of the women in the department was under the age of 50 and therefore likely to be ‘at risk’ of doing such a thing.

Of course the other contentious issue in the Environment Statement was provoked by the need to demonstrate ‘leadership’ from individuals in the department. The trawl for such metrics has clearly proved something of a challenge. One of the professors can list a whole page of strong examples – with accolades such as election to the National Academy for Leisure Activities, winner of the coveted Botham Medal for Recreational Excellence, and Plenary Lecturer at last year’s International Conference on Managerial Sports held in Hawaii to his credit. Most of the rest of the department can’t even lay claim to a poster prize or travel grant, as I have heard the PVC with responsibility for the REF point out with distinct sourness as she groans over some of her colleagues’ academic weaknesses. Even the latest recruit to the department, hired as an academic superstar, failed to capitalise on his alleged plethora of media contacts to nail the 6am Alternative Sports slot (broadcast on the first Saturday of each month) on the local radio programme that he had boasted about at interview.

The Impact Case studies quite clearly have the potential to be the most divisive element of all. The absence of a firm grip on reality by several academics was very obvious while I was in attendance. One member wants their conversation with an employee of ‘Britain’s the Toymakers’ about the accuracy of rifles on their plastic soldiers to be written up as an example of the societal impact of his work about the ratio of internal to external bore dimensions on paintball guns.  This conversation actually took place some time before the company was bought up by a US-based firm in 1997, and so sits outside the 15 year time span allowed anyhow; despite this he has by now been refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer for some months. Another is claiming huge public engagement metrics as a result of once taking his son (but not his daughter) to a local paintballing range and giving an ex tempore talk about his research when standing next to the coffee machine to a bemused audience of other parents. He is trying to link this event to the ‘extreme popularity’ [sic] of the activity for corporate team bonding events; unsurprisingly the rest of the department are unconvinced.  They do have at least one strong case: the design of spray nozzles was indeed influenced by a patent produced by a member of the department and he has a letter from one of the manufacturers to say so, albeit this letter neglects to mention any monetary value to the supposed benefit and so is a bit thin on metrics to determine ‘reach and significance’.

After an hour or so of listening to the wrangling and ill-tempered conversations I was only too glad to make my escape to my own REF panel. It is always good to be reminded just how delightful and rational one’s own companions are.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

This article was originally published on Athene Donald’s blog, and is republished here with permission.

About the author:
Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics at Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Athene has been at Cavendish since 1983, and became a professor in 1998.

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