Data enhancement and analysis of the REF 2021 Impact Case Studies

Group of three people working on a laptop in the foreground of an office, photo by mavoimages/Adobe Stock

Group of three people working on a laptop in the foreground of an office, photo by mavoimages/Adobe Stock

The pathways from research to impact are complex, diverse and unique.

What is the issue?

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a system for assessing the range and quality of academic research conducted at universities in the United Kingdom (UK). It is undertaken by the four UK higher education funding bodies: Research England, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE). The corpus of REF 2021 impact case studies provides a rich resource for analysis and showcases the research undertaken at UK HEIs.

How did we help?

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. The study aimed to address the following two objectives:

  • Collect and enhance 2021 REF impact case study data to provide the REF team with a structured dataset supporting further development of the REF 2021 online database; and
  • Quantitatively and qualitatively analyse the impact case studies 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.

What did we find?

There were several key findings from the analysis including:

  • UK Higher Education Institutions have had a significant and diverse societal impact.
  • The pathways from underpinning research to impact are complex, diverse and unique.
  • UK Higher Education Institution impact was global, national and local.
  • The REF impact case studies offer data for analysing research impact characteristics.
  • The research benefited many different groups.
  • There were differing interdisciplinarity and collaboration levels across the impact case studies.
  • Impact case studies were underpinned by highly cited research.
  • There was significant consistency between the findings for REF 2021 and REF 2014.

For a comprehensive examination of the impact of Scottish university research, we recommend reading this report in conjunction with the separate report documenting our analysis of the Scottish university impact case study dataset.