ScienceREF results 2021: UK's 'world-leading' research not confined to...

REF results 2021: UK’s ‘world-leading’ research not confined to elite universities


The Research Excellence Framework, an assessment of UK universities’ research output, has found that “world-leading” research is distributed across the country rather than concentrated in a few elite institutions



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12 May 2022

UK map

Research around the UK has been called “world-leading”

Muhammet Camdereli/Getty Images

The UK’s “world-leading” research isn’t just limited to a select few elite universities, but rather is distributed across the country, according to the latest UK government analysis of the country’s academic output.

The analysis by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) team is based on seven years’ worth of work conducted by universities. It assesses the quality of a university’s research output in terms of how highly cited it is and the impact it has had in both academia and the wider world. Unlike in 2014, the last time this analysis was conducted, the REF team put a greater emphasis on the wider long-term impact that a piece of research has had on the UK’s economy, environment and quality of life.

The results will help UK government funding bodies decide how to allocate £2 billion worth of grant money between universities each year.

“There’s lots of myths about where our research excellence is, but the truth is that it is more broadly distributed, as the results from this exercise show,” says Steven Hill at Research England, chair of the REF steering group.

More than 185,000 pieces of research were submitted by 157 universities to the REF team, which were reviewed by 34 expert panels. The panels were split into four main categories: life and medical sciences, physical sciences, social sciences and arts and humanities.

The team found that 41 per cent of the research submitted was considered of the highest quality, which the REF team termed “world-leading”. Meanwhile, 43 per cent of the research was ranked “internationally excellent”. More than 80 per cent of the research assessed at both these levels of quality was found in every region and nation in the UK.

Nearly all universities who submitted research to the REF team were found to have at least some of their activity judged as “world-leading”. “There’s a really even distribution of research excellence across the UK,” says Hill.

Comparisons with previous analyses made by REF are difficult to make due to methodological changes, but the 2014 REF report found that only 30 per cent of research submitted was “world-leading”.

“Universities play a key role in providing the ideas and skills to fuel the regional economy that surrounds them,” says Brian Walker at Newcastle University, UK. “In less prosperous regions, these contributions from universities are disproportionately important.”

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