REF 2021: More staff, more excellent research, great impacts

The latest iteration of the UK’s national research audit has fulfilled its aim to identify research quality across the whole system, says David Sweeney

May 12, 2022
Union Jack REF
Source: Getty

Each UK research assessment exercise, now known as the Research Excellence Framework, has some new characteristics, building on evaluations of previous exercises and seeking improvements. REFs address new policy challenges from the government, and each iteration is an attempt to give a richer and more informative picture of UK university research to partners and users of research, to funders and to institutions themselves. I believe that this latest iteration succeeds on that score.

As in 2014, REF 2021 provides ample evidence that research benefits are delivered by all universities. Thanks to the insights and attention of Lord Stern and colleagues, who reviewed the REF after the 2014 exercise, REF 2021 attempts to look significantly more broadly at the research efforts across all our universities and by all their staff with a significant responsibility for research, rather than those identified through the selective process used previously.

It is still an assessment of the best research and impact from all institutions, recognising our aim to carry out excellent research and to work with partners to deliver significant impacts. But in REF 2021, the brief was to capture the breadth and depth of that excellent research more fully.

Some staff produced many outstanding outputs during the seven-year REF cycle, and this exercise gave an opportunity for up to five of them to be submitted. Others might have produced a single outstanding output; that might have been missed in previous exercises, when most submitted staff were asked to deliver four outputs (with reduced numbers for early career staff or those with special circumstances).

So this exercise has fulfilled its aim to identify research quality across the whole system. That does mean that numerical comparisons with previous exercises are not valid, and the exercise is, in any event, a comparative one across institutions at a point in time, not a comparison with previous exercises or of UK research with overseas research. In due course, we will publish the results of a different exercise, looking at aggregated citations across UK research, and that will show that the UK has slightly increased its share of the very best international outputs in the face of substantial additional investment in both the US and China.

Yet much of the research looked at in REF 2021 is collaborative, both across UK institutions and with other research nations. Such is the nature of research, and REF 2021 emphasises the significant international role of our universities, perhaps already very obvious from the UK’s enormous contribution to addressing the Covid pandemic and also from the widespread enthusiasm from other countries for continuing to work with UK researchers despite the uncertainty around the UK’s association to the European Union’s Horizon Europe programme.

UK-wide research quality ratings hit new high in expanded assessment
Who’s up, Who’s up, who’s down? See how your institution performed in REF 2021

The big innovation in REF 2014 was the assessment of research impact. The methodology does not involve looking in a simplistic, linear way at research followed by impact, but at case studies that consider different kinds of partnerships between research users and universities. Benefits to health, the environment, business, culture and society come through engagement and co-creation.

Breakthroughs in underpinning research, recognised primarily through various forms of research output, may arise from the ideas of researchers but are often inspired by the insights of research users and the challenges of addressing societal need. After an initial assessment in 2014, REF 2021 was an opportunity to observe whether impacts arose from partnerships that have been embedded for a longer period than the first time round.

So it has proved, and the impact case studies (shortly to be published in a searchable database) will help everyone associated with the research enterprise to see ways of maximising the benefits realised from substantial public and private investment in research.

Output v impact: where is your institution strongest?
Unit of assessment tables: see who's top in your subject

Many countries have followed the UK in attempting to assess impact, but few have yet achieved a comprehensive set of information across all disciplines to better understand how to crystallise benefit. This is one of the attributes of being a “research superpower”, understanding how best that power can be deployed. The REF very much makes the case that global leadership in both research and its benefits is critically dependent on social science, arts and humanities, along with strengths in health and science.

Research and development remains at the heart of the country’s economic strategy, supporting enterprise and innovation. REF 2021 provides a summative statement about our position, which will help to inform funding decisions by the UK’s higher education funding bodies. However, it also provides much granular information to our universities. This will help them to invest in their research teams efficiently and effectively, to the benefit of the UK regions and nations, supported by partners of all kinds.

David Sweeney is executive chair of Research England.

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