This week, the results for the Research Excellence Framework 2021, a national review of university research, were announced 

The results of the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF) identified ‘world-leading’ and internationally excellent’ research across the UK with 41% of submissions judged to be world leading, and 43% as internationally excellent. This year’s results also confirmed that the UK’s research is internationally significant, and in many cases world-leading and reinforced the UK’s claim to have a research base that attracts significant business, investment and talent.  

REF 2021

The REF is a significant exercise that provides accountability for public investment in research and benchmarking information to institutions. Importantly, it also informs the allocation of funding for research.   

Since the original Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was introduced in 1986, research assessment has fundamentally changed and shaped the UK research landscape. The latest REF considers the quality of outputs (e.g. publications, performances, and exhibitions), but importantly also their impact beyond academia.  

The introduction of the “impact” measure in 2014 and 2021 accounting for 25% of the assessment process has significantly helped to shift the dial by encouraging and rewarding research that has a real-world impact.This year’s results demonstrated that 50% of the REF submissions were ‘outstanding’ in their wider benefits to economy and society and a further 38% very considerable. Speaking on behalf of the REF Steering Group, Professor Dinah Birch said that the UK is a global exemplar in terms of its understanding of what constitutes impact and the impact case studies published alongside the REF are a real success story for the UK.  This exercise will be important in demonstrating that the UK research system is well placed to meet the government ambitions to level up and become a science superpower. 

Looking forward

Even as the servers upload tens of thousands of REF impact case studies to the REF website, attention is already turning towards the next exercise. The four UK higher education funding bodies are leading a programme of work to explore the Future Research Assessment Programme (FRAP), which is due to conclude by the end of this year. This review has sparked significant interest from our members. There is collective interest in considering how future research assessment exercise can further boost university and industry collaboration and address areas where there are gaps.  

In November last year, NCUB was asked by UKRI and Research England to convene university and industry leaders to feed into the review. Participants were asked: how might the way we assess research in the future better encourage and enable academics to undertake more collaborative research with industry?   

Chaired by NCUB Board member Professor Roy Sandbach, the discussion highlighted a lively debate about how a future research assessment exercise should evolve to pave the way for enhanced and improved university research collaboration with industry.  

A few interesting themes emerged from the discussion.  

1 Assess future impact 

The exercise must recognise that the research to impact journey is a long one. There was agreement between business and university leaders that future assessment must look at the whole pipeline from fundamental to applied research. Often the journey to a particular output is paved with seeds of collaboration and research that lead to future impacts, which are not assessed but need to be understood in the context of future success, collaboration or economic impact.   

 2 Align research impact to grand challenges 

Many leaders commented that it is important that the FRAP supports the UK’s ability to tackle grand challenges. The Future research assessment programme will not solve every challenge, but it will shape what types of research outcomes are rewarded. Outcomes that contribute toward meeting global challenges should be rewarded.  

3 Consider the impact of research exercises on the researcher workforce  

Participants discussed how the new research assessment process can significantly shape how universities reward and incentivise researchers. Research has shown that researchers who have held posts in both academia and industry often produce excellent research and strong engagement with others1. The future research exercise must consider how to encourage and incentivise a natural flow of researchers between sectors, so that working outside of academia for a period of time is not penalised.  

4 Incentivise and encourage collaboration with SMEs 

The Covid-19 pandemic, and lifesaving innovations developed in response have raised the public profile of university and business collaboration and the benefits it can bring. However, for many sectors and businesses within them – incremental gains from smaller scale collaborations often with smaller businesses is where the transformation of the UK economy sits. There is a role for the FRAP to encourage and enable more of these collaborations with SMEs to take place. This could be particularly important in the current context, where NCUB’s State of the Relationship report showed that the number of interactions between universities and SMEs has fallen.  

Research assessment is at the forefront of the UK’s approach to shaping and evolving how our research impacts wider society and beyond. Future iterations and consideration of how research assessment can enhance university- business partnerships will be important in shaping the landscape within which external partners looking to partner with UK universities will operate and must remain an important part of the process.