It’s that time of year again: on Sunday 21st December, the winner of the annual scuffle to be Christmas Number One will be announced. The inclusion of streaming in this year’s charts is likely to shake up the system, as older tracks are likely to get more of a shot: Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” may make an improbable return to the top, alongside more recent releases by Band Aid 30 and whoever the X Factor winner ends up being. And then of course there’s Iron Maiden; and the whole thing will be accompanied by profound reflection on the pointlessness of it all, and on how it’s not nearly as important as it was ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago.
But three days earlier, on 18th December, academics like me will be hunkering down in their ivory towers and turning up the wireless to hear a different Top 40: the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014. REF is the scheme that the main UK higher education funding body, HEFCE, uses to determine where its research funding goes. The idea, of course, is to allocate more money to those institutions that are doing the best research. That raises an old, and difficult, question: how do we measure research quality?