From education to employment

International impact of UK university research revealed by new study

empty classroom

Research published today shows that UK higher education research has a significant impact on society and the economy, both nationally and globally.

A study by RAND Europe, Different Angles and Electric Data Solutions for Research England and UKRI analysed 6,361 published case studies. These came from the 2021 Research Excellence Framework, a key review which universities take part in by submitting information about their research outputs, impact and environment.

The study found that UK research has had many different and significant effects on society. Researchers clustered the case studies into 79 different ‘impact topics’, from cancer diagnostics and therapy to air quality and pollution, and analysed them as a rich source of information about the UK research landscape.

The role of UK research in addressing policy priorities

Researchers found that work by the academic community and universities played an important role across UK government policy priority areas. In addition to impacts within the UK, the research also had far-reaching global impact. The case studies demonstrated impact across almost every country in the world, benefiting society and the economy in many different ways.

Significant contributions were made by UK higher education research towards efforts to monitor, manage and mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic. Medical advancements were made which enabled the diagnosis and treatment of the disease, and research played a role in UK and international government policy responses from surveillance to public communication. UK university research saved lives and helped to ease symptoms among patients around the world.

UK research also made important contributions towards net-zero at local, national and international levels, particularly in terms of decarbonisation and emission reduction. It contributed to climate and energy policy, as well as advancements in technology.

The pathways to impact are complex and diverse

The study team also investigated how research engenders impact. They found 48,571 pathways in total, of which over 5,000 were unique. This demonstrated that there is no single way from research being conducted through to the ultimate impact. Instead, there are many, and they are complex and diverse.

This complexity was exemplified by the fact that 72% of the case studies linked to two or more research disciplines. This was particularly the case for work associated with societal challenges, like environmental conservation, climate change, and food policy.

Collaboration between researchers was prominent and played an important role in making research impactful, but as with interdisciplinarity, it varied depending on the subject area and nature of impact. Medicine, health and life sciences work saw the highest rates of collaboration.

Consistency from 2014

Comparing the findings in this study to the previous findings from the Research Excellence Framework 2014 showed very similar results. Both studies demonstrate the diverse impacts of research in the UK and globally, and the many complex ways by which these impacts come about.

Susan Guthrie, Research Group Director at RAND Europe, said,

“Developing metrics to capture the vast range of UK research activity and impact is a challenge. The Research Excellence Framework case studies provide a great opportunity to look at impact. They give us qualitative, detailed and nuanced data which showcases the significance of UK research, from influencing UK government policy to aiding with global concerns like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The UK report, Data enhancement and analysis of the REF 2021 impact case studies, was published today and can be read in full here.

A separate report on the impact of research from Scottish Higher Education Institutions, as demonstrated by the REF 2021 Impact Case Studies, was also published today here.

Related Articles