Much to toast in the research record of our universities

It’s a big day for thousands of Scotland’s academics. It’s also a big day for Scotland.

For the first time since 2008, all the best academic research in the UK has been independently evaluated.

Scotland has performed outstandingly well with over three-quarters of all research submitted judged as being world-leading or internationally excellent. This is a huge achievement. I’m sure academics, and entire universities, are now breathing a collective sigh of relief. Christmas has come early and the results certainly bring an extra bit of sparkle to the festive season.

It is hard to over-estimate how important Research Excellence Framework is to academics. It’s an important marker of individual and team success. It can mark people out as rising stars. It offers a strong external validation of the value and importance of work that often takes place outside the public eye. It’s the reason that universities competitively poach staff from across the world ahead of submission deadline like football teams during the transfer window. The results have a massive bearing on the levels of research funding universities will receive, with no funding given for anything less than “internationally excellent” research so it is fundamental to the performance of the whole institution for the next few years.

This year’s results show that Scotland still excels in competition with the very best institutions at the cutting edge of research. That’s the basis on which universities lever over £1.3 billion of export earnings into Scotland each year, from external parties buying our excellent research and from international students who choose to come here because of our excellence

For the first time, the assessment of research excellence has gone beyond a measure of quality to also measure the impact that universities’ research has beyond the university. Again, Scotland excels, with 86% of research having outstanding or very considerable impact.

But what does this mean?

Some of it is what you might expect – big science making a big difference. For instance, the University of Strathclyde’s research is fundamental to the implementation of ‘smart grids’ for more efficient energy distribution. Some of it is about the technologies that shape our lives online. For instance, the University of Edinburgh’s work to develop technologies based on XML (Extensible Markup Language) to enable the on-line experiences like eBay and BBC online that are so much part of the fabric of our daily lives.

Some of our impact is, perhaps, less like what you’d expect. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has transformed audiences’ experience of plays like Black Watch through innovative understanding of the human voice and its projection. And Scotland’s Rural College has developed innovations in animal welfare that can transform the welfare of the estimated 58 billion broiler chickens transported annually. Even the goose on the table this Christmas may have benefitted from the impact of Scotland’s university research.

Some of the research recognised through the Research Excellence Framework is utterly fundamental to our understanding of the universe, whether at the level of cosmology or at the level of understanding quantum particles. The impact of this may be less obvious, but it’s an essential part of our fundamental human curiosity to understand the universe and our place in it.

So as the festive season approaches, let’s pour ourselves a glass of ‘Thor’ whisky (developed by the University of the Highlands and Islands with the Edrington Group), enjoy an IQ Chocolate (developed with Robert Gordon University and Aberdeen University) and toast our nation’s success.

Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland

This analysis originally appeared in The Herald on 18 December 2014 as ‘Much to toast in the research record of our universities’.