The impact of HE research outside the academic sector

The impact of HE research outside the academic sector

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Report by HEFCE

HEFCE, on behalf of the four UK Higher Education funding bodies, periodically undertakes a process of expert review of UK research quality. The most recent iteration, the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014) was completed at the end of 2014. The exercise provides key information about universities to help us shape the allocation of public money for research, accountability for the spending of that public money, and for the first time direct information about the benefits of HE research.

REF 2014 included an assessment of the impact of HE research outside of the academic sector, collating evidence on the wider value of publicly-funded UK research for business and society.

UK HEIs provided four-page impact case studies describing how research undertaken at their institution had had an impact outside of academia. We drew on the expertise of academic peers and non-academic “users of research” from across industry and other sectors to assess the case studies. Impressive, high quality impacts were reported by all UK universities, covering diverse scales of activity and influence and involving all research disciplines – from the life sciences to arts and humanities.The REF has provided a wealth of information (over 6,500 documents) of broad interest, showcasing the value of research for wider society, including business, with outstanding impacts on the economy, society, culture, public policy and services, health, the environment and quality of life – within the UK and internationally. The case studies reflect universities’ productive and fruitful engagements with a very wide range of public, private and third sector organisations, and engagement directly with the public.

How can we Best use this vast data-rich resource?

We commissioned teams of researchers¹ to undertake an initial analysis of the case studies, exploring patterns of research impacts across the sector, but also to make the impact case studies freely available in a form and format to enable anyone to carry out their own analysis².One of the aims was to identify the beneficiaries of research using keyword search techniques to identify them in the case studies. There are numerous clear mentions of businesses, defined broadly, some of which may be driving the research itself, some benefitting from it. Much of the value of HE research is realised by working in partnership with business.

Case studies from all research subject areas are represented in the above figures; from life science research to physical science and engineering, social sciences to arts and humanities. Unsurprisingly, detail on the mentions of ‘companies’ and ‘businesses’ shows these were most highly correlated with impact case studies submitted to the physical science and engineering assessment panels. The 3,305 instances displayed compare to just over 200 mentions of charities, and jointly approximately 1,550 mentions of governments, ministers, policy makers and councils. We can see that HEIs and business are working together extensively.Further analysis of the case studies will reveal he nature of the relationships between HEIs and business, looking at the ways in which these relationships play out and are managed - in both formality and format. The analysis undertaken so far is a first step, and we wish to encourage further exploration of what the case studies have to tell us,opening up the potential for a range of specific researchquestions that will lead to increased productive relationships in the future.

Across all disciplines the case studies provide a rich source of narrative data, describing routes to commercialisation, actual revenue or monetary benefit. Research has a clear impact on the process of commercialisation and enterprise, with examples of commercial activity presented such as spin-outs from the reporting unit, agreement of licences and patent development.Examples of commercialisation impacts so far identified in the case studies have been based on revenue created from product sales, secured industrial investment and industrial partnerships, as well as spin-out companies creating staff employment. Together these make a clear case for the high value of relationships between universities and business.

Further Opportunities

It is important that the impact case studies are freely available for deeper exploration and the REF impact case studies database⁵ will enable this. It is a searchable online tool offering a wide range of automated text mining functionality, including: free text searches, searches by research subject areas and geographical locations referred to within the documents. We expect it to be of interest across sectors and industries.Beyond gaining a deeper understanding of the ways that universities and businesses work together, the database will also enable collaboration. Allowing businesses to readily identify areas of research where they may wish to develop new partnerships and relationships within the HE sector.

A number of companies in the private sector (as well as government departments) have already used the tool to search for activity relevant to their particular interests highlighting the value of research in UK universities.The REF process has led to HEIs deepening their relationships with businesses.

Unirsities were required to provide third party references to corroborate the claims made about the impact of their research, and explain how the third parties had benefitted. A report by RAND⁶, evaluating the preparation of impact case studies, found that there was widespread concern from universities over this requirement, in that providing such corroborating evidence put an undue burden on businesses. HEIs perceived that engaging business research users and beneficiaries would adversely change the dynamic of relationships with key stakeholders. Research users interviewed did not perceive these negative outcomes and highlighted the positive benefits of this engagement, strengthening relationships and reaffirming those that had lapsed. Some HEIs now intend to capture information on the impact and wider benefits of their research on an on-going basis, endeavouring to stay in contact with business and maintain these relationships. These relationships and partnerships are worth sustaining and the REF has provided another forum for this.

These relationships are recognised as positive and productive across the private sector and there is room for strengthening existing interactions and building new partnerships, supported by the flexibility that HEFCE’s quality related funding gives HEIs to invest in new and novel collaborations. HEIs should continue to build upon these relationships, with the opportunity for businesses to exploit the resource of impact case studies to initiate new partnerships.


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