Assessing and Articulating the Wider Benefits of Research

RAND Solution

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In times of austerity, when every budget is being cut or under close scrutiny, higher education institutions are being asked to prove that their research programmes are valuable to society. Tax-payers' money is spent not just on teaching but also on academic research, but how can researchers measure benefits and impacts for the broader population?


Seismograph instrument recording ground motion during an earthquake

In 2006, the United Kingdom announced its intention to reform the framework for assessing and funding research. After two rounds of consultations and pilot exercises, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced the development of Research Excellence Framework (REF), which all UK higher education funding bodies used by 2014. The wider, non-academic impacts of an institution's research constituted 20% of its REF score.

The purpose of the REF is to produce assessment outcomes for each funding submission that institutions make, and to ensure expert review of these submissions. Each assessment is to provide accountability for public investment in research and produce evidence of the investment's benefits.

The 2014 Research Excellence Framework placed new emphasis on the non-academic outputs of research ... and presented universities with a new challenge: how best to construct submissions and present research results to capture these outputs.

Project Description

RAND Europe has a track record in research evaluation, such as work on the 'science of science' and examining the spillover benefits generated by basic research. In 2008, RAND researchers developed a survey tool for the UK-based Arthritis Research Campaign to examine the returns and benefits from ARC-funded biomedical research. The RAND Europe team has since amended the tool, now known as ImpactFinder, to make it applicable across all academic disciplines.

RAND Europe now supports universities in their efforts to identify and articulate the impact of their academic research. Our team provides workshops on site, with groups or individuals, to create the narrative of the impact pathways for specific projects or researchers' career paths; critical reviews of draft case studies written by researchers; and evidence gathering from stakeholders involved in the research.

For each department or institution the aim has been to capture an understanding of where and how the research has had benefits and impact for users, practitioners, policymakers and the private sector, to help it meet the demands of the REF.

Research Questions

  1. Given the requirements of the REF, how can higher education institutions measure the impact of their research efforts?

Key Findings

  • Seven major English higher education institutions turned to RAND Europe for a specific package of help to compile their REF 2014 submissions in time for the November 2013 deadline.
  • RAND's ImpactFinder survey tool enabled universities in the UK and internationally to show which of their research efforts had the greatest likelihood of impact and thus were most worthy of funding.
  • Universities in the UK and internationally have benefitted from RAND's advice on impact workshops scoring well in the REF 2014.
Scientist conducts research in a lab


RAND Europe has provided high-quality support to several English higher education institutions in their REF 2014 submissions. The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which administers the REF, also asked RAND Europe to evaluate the impact element of the REF 2014 submission process, to inform subsequent assessments.

Additional projects using the same research approach have been commissioned by the University of Limerick in Ireland and by the Australian Technology Network of Universities, which asked RAND Europe to review the Excellence in Innovation for Australia Impact Assessment Trial.

The ImpactFinder survey tool provides an overview of research impact and a basis for more detailed examination of the 'why and how' of research translation.