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The wealth of impacts of academic research for the benefit of the economy and society can now be assessed, described and rewarded, according to a report to the four UK higher education funding bodies published today (11 November). The report sets out the findings of expert panels that have been piloting ground-breaking proposals for assessing the positive impact of research. (Note 1)

Under the proposals, which were consulted on last year, assessment of the impact of academic research will play a significant part in the UK-wide quality assessment to be conducted as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014. Universities and higher education colleges will need to demonstrate the benefits of their research to society or to the economy in order to achieve the highest ratings. In the REF, case studies and selected supporting material will be assessed by expert panels with a membership drawn from practising researchers and research users.

The inclusion of impact in the REF is a major new element in research assessment, which is used to determine funding allocations, provide benchmarking of the quality of UK research, and demonstrate the value of investment in research. Although impact is now a major consideration in research assessment around the globe, the UK has been at the forefront in developing a workable method. Universities will need to demonstrate how their research, both curiosity-driven and applied, has delivered important benefits beyond the academic world.

The report concludes that this approach is workable, and identifies a number of areas where improvements to the model used in the pilot can be made. The four UK funding bodies will continue to work together, and with the academic community and other partners, during the coming months to produce a fully developed approach, suitable for use across all disciplines. (Note 2)

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said:

'I welcome the publication of this useful report. It will help HEFCE to develop the Research Excellence Framework, examining how recognition of the highest levels of research excellence can be combined with encouraging wider impact on society and the economy and showing how improvements can be made. I am particularly grateful to the academics who participated in the pilot study.'

David Sweeney, HEFCE Director for Research and Innovation, said:

'We are delighted with the outcome of this exercise, which shows we can assess the contribution that research makes to society. We believe in the powerful and beneficial impact that research has on society and economic development, but have not previously had the tools to demonstrate this. I am grateful to those who gave their time to the pilot exercise.'

Notes

  1. To trial how the beneficial impact of research can be assessed, a pilot exercise was undertaken by the REF team on behalf of the four UK higher education funding bodies. It involved 29 higher education institutions from across the UK, which submitted material for assessment to one or two of five units of assessment (the main subject groupings used for assessment). The units of assessment in the pilots were:
    • Clinical Medicine
    • Physics
    • Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences
    • Social Work and Social Policy & Administration
    • English Language and Literature.
  2. Decisions on the broad features of the impact assessment and its weighting within the overall REF assessment will be taken by the four UK higher education funding bodies, in early 2011. Within the generic framework determined by the funding bodies, the REF panels will develop more detailed criteria and guidance, in consultation with their communities, for publication in December 2011.
  3. A separate report also published today from Technopolis Group on the lessons learned by the 29 pilot higher education institutions confirms the feasibility of the approach. The pilot institutions found that producing case studies is the most appropriate way of explaining the impact of their research, and through the pilot they gained valuable new perspectives on their achievements beyond the academic world.
  4. The REF is the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. It replaces the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and will be completed in 2014 to allow the results to inform funding allocations from 2015-16. The REF will be undertaken by the four UK higher education funding bodies. The exercise will be managed by the REF team based at HEFCE and overseen by the REF Steering Group, consisting of representatives of the four funding bodies.
  5. The RAE outcomes from 2008 are currently used to allocate quality-related research funding, amounting to around £2 billion per year to the higher education research community across the four UK countries.