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The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a process of expert review to assess the excellence of academic research conducted at universities in the United Kingdom (UK), undertaken by the four UK higher education funding bodies. Research England and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) commissioned RAND Europe, together with Electric Data Solutions and Different Angles, to conduct a study to understand the research impact of the UK higher education sector as represented by the REF 2021 Impact Case Studies (ICSs). The study aimed to address the following two objectives:

  1. Collect and enhance 2021 REF ICS data to provide the REF team with a structured dataset supporting further development of the REF 2021 online database; and
  2. Quantitatively and qualitatively analyse the ICSs to examine the broader societal impacts of research at Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

The study provides an in-depth examination of the Impact Case Studies using a mixed-methods research approach that involved a range of quantitative and qualitative analyses such as topic modelling, geotagging, text searches, bibliometric analysis, infographics and deep dives. This report is intended for a range of stakeholders including those interested in the REF and research assessment, higher education research as well as those interested in the impact of HEIs on society.

Key Findings

  • UK HEIs have had a significant and diverse societal impact
  • Impact pathways are complex, diverse and unique
  • Impact was global, national and local
  • ICSs offer data for analysing research impact characteristics
  • Analysis revealed differing interdisciplinarity and collaboration levels across the Impact Case Studies
  • Research benefited many different groups
  • ICSs were underpinned by highly cited research
  • There was significant consistency between REF 2021 and REF 2014.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    The nature and beneficiaries of research impact

  • Chapter Three

    Research underpinning the impact

  • Chapter Four

    Change and continuity relative to REF 2014

  • Chapter Five

    Government policy and strategy

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusions

  • Annex A

    UKRI-specific analysis

  • Annex B

    Research questions

  • Annex C

    Units of Assessment

  • Annex D

    Additional figures and tables

  • Annex E

    Methodology

  • Annex F

    RS-IDR metric by impact topic

Research conducted by

This research was prepared for Research England and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and conducted by RAND Europe.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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