Speech — ‘Fostering responsible use of metrics and data in higher education and research’, 20 April 2021

Remarks to The Westminster Higher Education Forum Policy Conference: ‘Reducing the bureaucratic burden in higher education and research: options, scope and potential impact’.

Good morning.

My name is Max Lu.  I am the chair of the UK Forum for Responsible Research Metrics (FRRM) and I am also a Board Director of UK Research and Innovation.  My day job is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Surrey.   

We are meeting today under the ongoing and extraordinary circumstances of a global pandemic. The silver lining for our community is that the crisis has reminded everyone of the vital importance of research. But there is more to it than that: the confidence in new treatment or vaccine — and any new technology more broadly — is fundamentally underpinned by the scientific rigour, reliability of data, integrity of researchers and a diverse and inclusive culture.

Therefore it is vital that the community of funders, researchers and research leaders seize every opportunity to shape research assessment and research culture towards a future that is responsible, positive and balanced. I believe that responsible metrics can form part of a wider and more energetic drive to improve the culture, quality and integrity of UK research.

In my role as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Surrey I am helping to shape the research culture locally. As a research leader, I have long advocated for improving the environment and conditions to better support today’s diverse community of academics to develop rewarding careers.  To this end, at Surrey we are creating a culture that supports equality and diversity, embodies our stated values and nurtures modern and multi-faceted research careers. 

We do this by:

  • Ensuring that we measure what we value in research — avoiding any ‘mission creep’ and contradictory or ‘perverse’ incentives — and that our metrics and evaluation fully support and reflect our mission;
  • Increasing the transparency of our data sources and reporting, and ensuring our researchers can self-verify their profiles and metrics. This transparency reflects our ‘open’ research values and improves the accuracy and robustness of the data, and our confidence in it;
  • Creating resources that can inform researchers and professional service colleagues alike on the various metrics and tools available – both their benefits and their limitations;
  • Emphasising the benefits of responsible use, just as the UK FRRM stated: “The data boom presents opportunities, as long as the use of data remains sensitive to disciplinary differences, interdisciplinarity, and unintended consequences. Metrics should not be ignored. Ignoring metrics has the potential to be as irresponsible as relying solely on them. They have a role to support narrative and peer review to inform decision making – but we need to get the balance right.”

We should focus our efforts on fostering discussion, sharing emerging practice and making sure we have the right communities of practice to openly discuss and revise approaches as appropriate. It is also clear that we need to reflect on how to engage our funding bodies and the research sector in thinking about future research assessment exercises.

However, the responsible use of research indicators is not an issue that is specific to the UK. There is an intrinsic link between publication motivation and practice, incentives and open research, and this is a global issue.

At the Global Research Council Online Conference on responsible research assessment that I co-chaired in November 2020, over 1,000 speakers and participants from around the world discussed and explored many of these important topics.  It was a great conference with a strong message about the responsible use of metrics: that the sector needs to understand what it values in research and researchers, so metrics can be focussed on measuring what matters rather than on what can be measured. 

The use of research metrics will require the existing research culture to adapt and change – and it will have to. Our society’s progress in knowledge, wisdom and understanding is underpinned by a diverse and inclusive research culture.

Let us approach this great task with the spirit of enquiry and discovery, of breaking down barriers and finding new possibilities to ensure that the world will always have the very best minds ready to work on the grand challenges of our time.

Thank you very much.