Everything you need to know about REF 2021 in the UK

The 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) is fast approaching. It is a high-stakes game, in which senior academic leaders are deeply involved. Achieving the best possible REF return is a tricky business, and universities, as well as researchers, are working intensively on their preparations for the assessment. Universities across the UK are deep in the throes of their REF 2021 preparations, including:

  • Assessing the quality of the journal articles, books, monographs and other research outputs they have produced
  • Crafting case studies to showcase the impact of their research on the outside world
  • Gathering data on their performance on grant capture, postgraduate training and all the other aspects of a strong research environment

What is REF 2021?

REF 2021 is the latest in a series of periodic assessments of the quality of research in UK universities. It assesses university research according to three criteria:

  • The academic quality of research publications
  • The non-academic impact of the research
  • The overall university environment that supports research

Introduced in 2014, the Research Excellence Framework is the replacement for the previous Research Assessment Exercise that was carried out in the UK. Four higher education funding bodies are involved in the REF: Research England, which leads the REF process, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE).

REF’s purpose & the importance

The primary purpose of the REF is to determine the allocation of Quality-Related (QR) funding to universities. The policy aim for funding bodies is to secure the continuation of a world-class, dynamic and responsive research base across the UK higher education sector, and the REF is the key mechanism for assessing this. The QR block grant is worth around £2bn per year in total, and universities use this funding to support strategic initiatives in research, as well as to provide support for researchers. But it’s not just about money. A university’s performance in the REF impacts its reputation. And research groups or individuals who are seen to have contributed strongly to their institution’s REF score can also have their reputations enhanced.

Role of non-academic impact in REF 2021

Since 2014, the REF has included the non-academic impact of research as a specific and important aspect of the assessment. This has led to an increasing imperative for universities to ensure that they are doing as much as they can to ensure that the research they are producing translates into benefits in the world outside of academia. In terms of QR allocation, a top-rated case study is worth a six-figure sum across the REF cycle.

This explicit focus on impact has driven universities to increase their investment in research communications, engagement with non-academic organizations, and gathering evidence of the benefits that their research has brought about. Communicating research to non-academic audiences through case studies, graphical summaries, infographic data representations, and interactive websites is increasingly important as a pathway to impact, and evaluating the reach and significance of the impact is vital for the REF.

Views of Iain Coleman on impact support

A recent white paper by Iain Coleman, Research Engagement Manager at Impact Science, on support for impact in universities clearly shows the importance of impact in REF 2021.

“Impact was introduced to the REF to produce changes in culture, behavior and institutional support such that the non-academic benefits of university research would be more fully realized. So far, it appears that this has been partially successful

The current level of impact support in a university is largely a function of how responsive senior management has been to the impact officer’s case for broader and deeper support.

A clear message for anyone providing support to universities for impact activities is that this support should engage as deeply as possible with the research, should as far as possible be embedded in the research project, and should ensure that it enhances the substance of the research impact, and of the evidence of its reach and significance.”

To download the complete white paper – click here

Supporting research impact for REF 2021

Impact Science provides comprehensive support for impact throughout the research project life cycle – and beyond. This includes dissemination and engagement services to maximize the impact of research, evaluation services to provide the all-important evidence of research to underpin REF case studies and impact writing to ensure that each case study is as strong as it can possibly be.

Impact is about more than just the REF, and Impact Science provides support for research impact in its broadest and deepest sense. However, there is no denying the importance of the REF, and of submitting the strongest possible impact case studies. With support for dissemination, engagement, evaluation and impact writing, Impact Science has the expertise and capability to boost a university’s REF performance – and to help it make substantial gains in QR funding.

To know more and get a detailed consultation for your Impact case study requirements, get in touch with us on

Write to us at or fill in your details below to learn how we can help your research come alive!

    Marisha Rodrigues

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