Reaction to Research Excellence Framework 2021 results
Research England has published the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which the UK higher education funding councils carry out to provide accountability for public investment, provide benchmarking information, and inform the selective allocation of quality-related research (QR) funding.
The REF results are very important to UK higher education institutions and funders – and to the broader research community and society – as a way of capturing the quality and impact of UK research as well as the state of the environment in which that research is carried out. The exercise assesses the quality of research outputs (worth 60% of the overall profile), the impact of research (worth 25%) and the research environment (worth 15%).
Tom Welton, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, recognises that the results will prompt much analysis and discussion across the research community. He says: “We should really start with thanking all involved in the REF process. It is a huge task, not only in submitting but also judging the REF submissions, they do it so conscientiously and well.”
Chemistry goes from strength to strength
The results published today show the outstanding quality of UK chemistry research and the significant impacts for society and the economy. A total of 41 UK institutions submitted to the chemistry sub-panel, up from 37 in 2014. In 2014, relative to the 2008 REA, chemistry saw a significant increase in the proportion of research judged as either ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’, compared to ‘recognised internationally’ and ‘recognised nationally’. REF2021 results show chemistry moving from strength to strength, with further increases in the submissions judged as ‘world-leading’ across all assessment elements.
The REF results evidence world-leading quality and impact not just for chemistry, but across UK university research. Tom Welton responds: “It’s great that chemistry continues to go from strength to strength and that the UK research base has done so well. While chemistry has its own sub-panel, the chemical sciences are integral to so many other areas of the research and innovation ecosystem that this across the board success is also something that we should celebrate.”
Making the world a better place
It is hugely positive to see the further increase in impact submissions judged as ‘world-leading’, demonstrating the crucial role of chemistry – increasingly in collaboration with other academic disciplines and with policymakers, not-for-profits and industry – in making the world a better place. Gill Reid, President-Elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry, adds: “I expect that a considerable proportion of the chemistry case studies will demonstrate industrial and economic impact stemming from spin-outs and engagement with companies. This is really important for chemistry and the impact measures reflect the success of our discipline in this area.”
The impact case studies undoubtedly will highlight diverse ways in which chemistry research is contributing to tackling health, sustainability and climate change challenges, as well as significant contributions that we know chemical scientists made during the Covid pandemic. Tom Welton adds: “The results are telling us not only that we are being impactful but that we are continually improving our impact.” Gill Reid concludes: “Chemistry is clearly on a positive trajectory and delivering impacts for the benefit of the UK and beyond. This is a very positive message for the chemistry community and for the next generation of scientists.”
Concern over real-terms QR decline
Whilst the RSC has welcomed the UK Government’s plans to increase overall public investment in R&D, we are very concerned that the QR funding that is allocated based on the REF exercise has been declining in real terms since 2010/11 (see analysis by The Russell Group). We should not become complacent and need to ensure that researchers receive the support they need to continue to achieve the high-quality results that were evidenced in this REF cycle.
QR funding enables universities to train the next generation of researchers and entrepreneurs, to fund cutting-edge infrastructure and early-stage, risky or disruptive research. Crucially, QR’s flexible nature means universities can use it for both long-term planning and to respond quickly to emerging opportunities and pressures. During the Covid-19 pandemic, universities were able to reallocate QR funding to rapidly pivot their activities even before Government schemes were put in place.