REF 2021 update: Professor Patrick Grant

The Research Excellence Framework 2021 - the “REF" - is the seventh in a series of UK-wide periodic assessments of research quality undertaken by Research England on behalf of the four national UK Funding Bodies. It is a UK-wide assessment of research in universities, and provides an objective peer-reviewed score of the quality and impact of research at subject level in each university.

Our performance in the REF is the largest determinant of QR (quality-related research) funding we receive from the government, and is currently £80Mpa of a total QR income of £145Mpa. Overall REF performance represents approximately 11% of our external research funding. Excellence in the REF is also critical to the University’s research reputation that underpins our competitiveness, ability to recruit and retain, attractdonations for research, etc.

For REF 2021, we have to submit all eligible staff, and a selection of their research outputs and impact case studies, as well as narratives on our research environment across 29 subject-based Units of Assessment (UOAs) in 4 subject-grouped Main Panels. We expect to submit >8k research outputs, approximately 250 impact case studies, 29 environment statements at UOA level, as well as a statement describing our institutional research environment (new for this REF). The submission is being supported by a large number of academics, most notably the UOA Coordinators,as well as professional staff across the University. We undertook a dry run of the submission last year that helped to advance our preparations significantly.

The original REF submission deadline was November this year. However, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic the submission deadline was paused until its full impact on the operations of all universities became clear. In the meantime, our work on the REF continued, albeit in more constrained circumstances. This work has included staff eligibility determinations for new staff, research output nomination and quality review, an interim equality impact assessment, checking that every nominated research output is open-access compliant, and ongoing writing and data collection for impact case studies and environment statements.

The Funding Bodies have recently announced that the new REF submission deadline is 31 March 2021. We are therefore in the process of meeting with all of the UOA Coordinators and other key stakeholders in departments, divisions,GLAM, colleges and administration services to establish a revised timeline for submission.

As the deadline draws closer, the burden of the work (for example on reviewing and selecting outputs) falls heavily on a relatively small group of people who are at the heart of preparations. The academics who are UOA Coordinators have a number of large tasks ahead, including some tasks that are new to this REF, including an optimal and fair selection and distribution of outputs across all eligible staff. In previous exercises, the research outputs we submitted were a fixed number per person whereas now we have to submit 2.5 outputs per FTE submitted in a UOA, with each person having a minimum of 1 and no more than 5 attributed. The larger the UOA – and there are some of many hundreds of researchers in the University – the more time-consuming and complex the task of arriving at the distribution of outputs that maximises overall quality.

I would like to ask for the help of all colleagues to support our UOA Coordinators, and other REF related-staff, by responding to requests they may make to complete our submission. This assistance may include nominating your strongest research outputs (if you have not already done so); helping to review research outputs to make sure we choose our strongest outputs fairly; by drafting or reviewing impact case studies; and helping to draft or provide evidence for research environment statements.

Our impact case studies face particular challenges in evidencing the impact of our research outside academia since so many collaborators and users of our research, on whom we rely for much of this evidence, are themselves facing severe disruption. Nonetheless, I am confident that by pulling together for this final stage of the REF process, even with the challenges we face, we will produce a submission of the highest quality that shows the strength and vibrancy of our research environment, and the ways in which our research provides tremendous benefits regionally, nationally and around the world.

I would like to thank again the many colleagues who are supporting the REF process for all they have done and continue to do in helping to ensure that the University has the strongest possible REF submission.


Patrick Grant, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research), Vesuvius Professor of Materials