The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a new system for assessing the quality of research in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). The higher education funding bodies use the assessment outcomes to inform the selective allocation of their research funding. REF 2014 replaced the Research Assessment Exercise, which has occurred on a (near) quinquennial basis since 1986. Under this new system, HEIs are assessed on three criteria: outputs, e.g., publications (weighted at 65 % of the overall score), non-academic impact in the form of a set of impact case studies (20 %), and research environment (15 %).
The allocation of research funding based on non-academic impact is relatively new, with the REF being the first example of its application across a research system . In 2006, a pilot exercise was carried out during the development of the Australian national Research Quality Framework which would have introduced impact assessment into their national research assessment exercise, but this was dropped with the change of government in 2007 . In the UK, following a pilot exercise , the higher education funding bodies concluded that peer review of research impact case studies was a workable approach and it was decided that REF will assess universities on the basis of the quality of research outputs, the vitality of the research environment, and the wider impact of research.
An impact case study is a short four-page document consisting of five sections: i) summary of impact, ii) a description of the underpinning research, iii) references to that research, iv) details of the impact, and v) sources to corroborate the impact. These case studies are now available in an online searchable database .
A total of 154 HEIs made REF submissions, with the number of case studies per submission ranging from 2 to 260 – providing a unique resource to understand the nature and scale of impact as well as the key drivers that help ensure a move from ‘bench to bedside’ in biomedical and health research. It is important, however, to acknowledge that these case studies were written for assessment, rather than analytical, purposes, which means further work is needed to extract quantitative information and metrics.