Producing world-leading research

Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014

What is the REF 2014?

The REF 2014 is an assessment of the quality and impact of the research that UK universities undertake. The REF itself is a huge undertaking and is carried out roughly every six-seven years. The last assessment was published in December 2008.

The assessment is made on the basis of submissions from each Unit of Assessment (usually a university department), collated and submitted by each HEI.

Why is the REF 2014 important?

The results provide important reputational yardsticks and benchmarking information about the research performance of every one of the UK’s higher education institutions.

The REF 2014 provides accountability for public investment in research and demonstrates the benefits of that investment.

The results of the REF 2014 will be used by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and the other UK higher education funding bodies (HEFCE, HEFCW and DEL) to allocate block-grant research funding to HEIs from 2015/16. The Funding Councils do this highly selectively based on the quality and the volume of research. SFC has allocated £245 million of research funding in Scotland for 2014/15 on the basis of performance in the last assessment of research in 2008.

Charities, businesses and public bodies can use the REF 2014 results to find out which universities have particular strengths in certain areas in order to sponsor research or work collaboratively with universities on research projects.

REF 2014 Results

A total of 6,350 research active staff in Scotland were submitted to the REF2014 with a total of 22,891 outputs between them. Both figures represent a 12 per cent share of all staff and all outputs made across the UK.

The REF provides an overall quality profile within each of 36 ‘units of assessment’ which are focused on particular disciplines. Overall, 77 per cent of Scottish research submitted to the REF2014 was judged to be “world-leading” or internationally excellent (4* and 3* combined) on the overall profile. This puts Scotland just ahead of the UK average of 76.1 per cent.

Each submission to the REF 2014 was assessed for three different factors:

  1. The quality of outputs. Here 77% of Scottish research submitted to the REF2014 was judged to be “world-leading” or “internationally excellent” (4* and 3* combined). This was the same as the UK average overall.Research submitted was judged on “originality, significance and rigour” and this accounts for 65% of the score.
  2. Impact of the research beyond academia. Scotland performs more highly than the UK average when assessed on the impact of its research; a new measures for REF 2014. 85.8 per cent of Scottish research was judged to be at 4* and 3* – levels which means the research has had “outstanding” or “very considerable” impact (compared to the UK average of 83.9 per cent).Assessors looked for evidence of: “any effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia” and this accounts for 20% of the score.Such a strong performance for Scottish university research in terms of impact is great news for Scotland’s society and economy because it means that there is a high return on investment in research activity.
  3. Environment. Scotland was found to have the highest rating of 4* and 3* combined in the UK for the research environment measure. The assessment of environment includes the wider research team including researchers and post-doctoral students as well as facilities and infrastructure. The environment measure accounts for 15% of the overall score. The assessors were looking for “vitality and sustainability” in the submissions.

Demonstrating its strengths across all disciplines, the Scottish sector has above the UK average proportion of ’world-leading’ research in fields such as: chemistry, biological sciences, physics, history, art and design, agriculture, veterinary and food science music, drama, dance and the performing arts.

Impact case studies

Here are some diverse examples of how the research carried out by Scotland’s higher education institutions impacts people, places and economies nationally and internationally:

A 10-year research programme resulted in the Global Registry of Acute Coronary Events (GRACE) and the GRACE Risk Score, which has saved lives by helping doctors better manage the treatment of heart patients.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally. A critical form of cardiovascular disease is Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS), which includes heart attack and unstable angina that may lead into heart attack. ACS is mainly due to narrowing in the blood vessels supplying the heart, because of plaque build-up in the arteries. Before 2000, predicting what would happen in the heart after early ACS symptoms was particularly difficult as the ACS population was uncharacterised.

In response to this situation, Keith Fox, Professor of Cardiology at the University of Edinburgh, and Professor Joel Gore of the University of Massachusetts established a 10-year research programme and the largest multinational study of ACS.

The GRACE study involved more than 100,000 patients in 30 countries. This study and others identified a ‘risktreatment paradox’ that existed irrespective of geographic region and healthcare system. The paradox was that lower risk rather than higher risk patients received more intensive medical treatment.

The GRACE risk score addressed this flaw in the handling of patient treatments by providing clinicians with a powerful yet user-friendly means of identifying higher risk patients at the time of their presentation.

In 2011 the GRACE risk score was made available as an app, and it has since been downloaded more than 10,000 times.

Its emergence has received widespread international media coverage.

The GRACE  risk score has had positive impacts on clinical practice and on policy and public health. For example, it has made an invaluable contribution to the evaluation of treatment outcomes and patient care. Modelling by the University of Edinburgh team suggests that implementation of the GRACE risk score produces a saving of 30-80 lives for every 10,000 patients.

GCU research into media coverage and public perceptions of poverty, and measures to tackle poverty has had an impact on policy making, policy content and the public discourse of poverty.

Deprived communities have been the primary beneficiaries of this impact. GCU research helped secure pledges from all the main Scottish political parties to avoid stigmatising and socially divisive language in discussing poverty. Secondary beneficiaries have been campaigning organisations whose media engagement strategies have improved. Finally, GCU poverty research has informed the Scottish Government’s Child Poverty Strategy and the child poverty measures of Community Planning Partnerships.

A team of GCU researchers conducted two significant projects: ‘The Media, Poverty and Public Opinion’, funded by research and development charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), and ‘Tackling Child Poverty Locally’, funded by the Scottish Centre for Regeneration, which is now part of the Scottish Government.

The JRF study found that those directly experiencing poverty featured in only one in eight news media reports and were often portrayed as passive victims, even if the coverage was sympathetic. Soap operas did not contain enough realistic representations of poverty and few documentaries helped the public to understand the causes, or reality, of poverty.

The second project used original research and secondary data analysis to develop an integrated body of training resources, stakeholder dialogue events and advice workshops. This included an online child poverty toolkit, briefing papers and other resources to assist local practitioners in preparing and implementing child poverty strategies.

The projects, together with an associated body of commentary, community engagement and knowledge exchange activity, had a number of impacts on policy making, policy content and the public discourse on poverty.

Biological and Environmental Scientists at Stirling are leading research into bumblebees, with huge importance for their future survival.

Urgent action is required with current bumblebee populations too small to survive in the long-term. Research at Stirling, into everything from ecology, foraging range and dietary requirements of the bumblebee, to the damaging effects of agricultural pesticides, has enabled a clear picture to be emerged on how to conserve bumblebees.

Translating this bumblebee biology into conservation measures, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT) was established at Stirling and now has 8000 paying members and offices in Scotland, England and Wales. It has inspired more than 12,000 people to get involved in bumblebee conservation projects, providing education packs to primary schools and linking in with nationwide Garden Centres and supermarket chain Morrisons to create a flower-rich habitat.

The Trust set up the first ever Bumblebee nature reserve, created more than 2000 hectares of habitat and co-ordinated a project to reintroduce the extinct short-haired bumblebee to the UK. They also meet with the National Farmers’ Union to promote more bee-friendly farming and crucially their research played a key role in the European Union announcing a two-year moratorium on use of neonicotinoid insecticides on flowering crops.

The welfare of animals in transit is a major public and political concern. The emotive nature of the issues means it is especially important that welfare is assessed in a scientifically sound and objective way. It is also vital that we gain a full picture of the impact of transport on animals in order to provide practical solutions to the issues involved. This will ensure high standards of welfare in transport that are compatible with sustainable and efficient production.

Globally, 6.5 million cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry are slaughtered every hour. The vast majority are transported to centralised facilities for slaughter. Many young or breeding animals are transported from sites of birth or hatching to distant locations for finishing and breeding programmes.

Many other animals are routinely transported for purposes of sport, recreation, military activities and domestic use. Animals may be transported by road, sea, air and rail and journeys can last from a few minutes to many hours, days or even weeks in the case of long sea voyages. The stress factors to which animals are exposed in transit may compromise their welfare and health and result in poorer production and increased losses and waste.

SRUC’s animal transport research programme has made major contributions to improved animal welfare, vehicle design, codes of practice and legislation. The use of basic response modelling and integration of approaches from laboratory and climate chamber based studies and model evaluation and validation under commercial conditions was central to the success of this work. The studies resulted in the development of the Concept 2000 poultry transporter. This was the foundation of the development of fan ventilated animal transporters and the associated legislative requirements. The work has had an important influence upon European (e.g. EC 1/2005) and national legislation relating to animal transportation and has influenced commercial practice in a positive way, improving both animal welfare and production efficiency by reducing losses and improving product quality in meat animals.

Further reading

For more reaction from Universities Scotland:

For further information on the REF 2014, including a searchable online database and initial analysis of REF impact case studies, visit REF or get in touch.

Key Facts:

  1. Every one of Scotland’s 18 HEIs undertakes research judged to be of “world-leading” quality.
  2. The higher education sector in Scotland submitted research to all 36 units of assessment (broad subject groupings) and was judged to undertake research of “world leading” quality in all 36 units of assessment.
  3. Overall, 77 per cent of Scottish research submitted to the REF2014 was judged to be “world-leading” or “internationally excellent” (4* and 3* combined) on the overall profile.
  4. Scotland’s performance in the REF 2014 exceeds that achieved in the last UK-wide research assessment exercise conducted in 2008. Scotland’s overall profile figure for 4* and 3* research in 2008 was 52 per cent.
  5. Scotland performs more highly than the UK average when assessed on the impact of its research; a new measures for REF 2014. 85.8 per cent of Scottish research was judged to be at 4* and 3* levels which means the research has had “outstanding” or “very considerable” impact (compared to the UK average of 83.9 per cent).