March 31, 2021, by Rob Ounsworth

The best job at our university

REF Impact Manager Chris Mellor reflects on preparing 135 impact case studies for submission to REF2021

I tell everyone I have the most interesting job at the university – I get to hear about all the amazing research that is having an impact on society in so many different ways.

I took on the new role of REF Impact Manager in 2017, with the remit to guide the whole university in developing our impact case studies for REF2021. This is the second REF I’ve worked on. For REF2014, I was Impact Officer in the School of Pharmacy. Impact was a new part of REF and we were trying to understand how to showcase our impact in the best possible way. The role was varied and exciting – I followed every impact trail, every thread of evidence, tried not to upset CEOs of spin-out companies with my probing questions, talked to patent lawyers, government advisors, and turned private detective on what looked like a ‘cold case’.

Much to our delight, Pharmacy scored the maximum 4* for all its impact case studies. I found myself being asked to look at other schools’ impact case studies and advise on ‘where they had gone wrong’ and how they should plan for the future…

Fast forward to 2017 and in my new role as REF Impact Manager it became obvious that my reputation preceded me – ‘you’re the girl who worked on Pharmacy’s 100% 4* impact’ – and there was a lot of expectation!

Impact activity ramps up

By 2018, impact activity was ramping up. Professor Neil Crout was appointed Academic Lead for Impact and became my partner-in-crime. More impact officers were recruited and the Impact Network was formed. We shared advice on policies (interpreting in some cases what Research England might actually mean), and internal processes for impact development and reviewing, along with, more recently, guides to getting all the impact information on RIS, ready for transfer to RESS (the Research England Submission System).

The last couple of years have flown by, but we’ve packed a lot in:

  • author training sessions for more than 100 authors and impact officers – imparting my wisdom, experience, tips and tricks.
  • setting up an ‘Expert Group for Impact’ who became our reviewer pool, and training them on what to look for in a good (and not-so-good) case study. We had a lot of fun discussing chickens and donkeys – the Expert Group will know what I mean!
  • revamped the impact reviewing process to include review meetings to ensure consensus feedback was given back to the authors and bringing the authors in for the final review round. This started as we went into lockdown – and went surprisingly well. These reviews took over my life for six weeks each year. I’ve read every case study that came through for review (you have to when everyone wants to know your opinion…).
  • set up interim reviews for those who wanted some extra feedback to make sure they were on track.
  • ran impact workshops to discuss some case studies in more depth. The ‘light bulb’ moment when an author gets it and understands what impact means gives me a warm glow every time…
  • hours, days and weeks of testing and de-bugging both the RIS REF module and RESS, so much so that both Worktribe and the RESS developers thanked us for our help! You wouldn’t believe the intricacies of actually getting our REF return into RESS for submission… no really, you wouldn’t…

A massive team effort

Our final submission of 135 impact case studies has been whittled down from almost 300 potential case studies over the last three years.

It’s been a massive team effort – impact coordinators, impact officers (worth their weight in gold, everyone one of them!), case study authors (and not just those whose case studies made the final cut), the Expert Group for Impact, the rest of the REF Team. I want to thank every one of you who has been part of the process; I couldn’t have done without you.

As a medicinal chemist by background, my eyes have been opened to research and impact beyond the STEM subjects and the medical advances and the work with big business that we all get to hear about. The variety of impactful research that comes out of the arts and social sciences never ceases to amaze me. Many of our case studies are showcased on the Vision webpages and I encourage everyone to have a read, it really is inspiring what our academics have been working on. I’ve got my favourite case studies but it wouldn’t be fair to single any out in this blog – buy me a drink when the pubs re-open and I might just divulge…

My journey

I wanted to finish with a personal reflection…

I’ve learnt to be resilient and calm under pressure, I’ve lost track of the number of times people have said ‘you’re always so calm about everything Chris’…

I’ve learnt to be tactful and diplomatic, telling an academic that their life’s work won’t make a good REF impact case study is never easy… (it’s usually because it doesn’t fit the REF rules, not because it’s not great impact)

I’ve become a leader, guiding a team along the journey from initial impact ideas through to fully evidenced impact case studies. People look to me for support, my opinion on how to improve their case study, and at times they hang off my every word, including senior academics. That’s quite daunting … but I’m slowly getting used to it.

When I started in this role, I heard the phrase ‘let’s hope you can do for the whole university what you did for Pharmacy’ many, many times… A target of 100% 4* over 135 case studies was always unrealistic. But, with the help of the entire impact team across the university, I think I can safely say we have done our best, and at the end of the day, that was what I did for Pharmacy.


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