Press release

Government launches review to improve university research funding

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson has launched a UK-wide review of university research funding.

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson today (16 December 2015) launched a UK-wide review of university research funding to cut red tape so that universities can focus more on delivering the world-leading research for which the UK is renowned.

Following the decision to protect the £4.7 billion annual science and research budget in real terms during this Parliament, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) review will help ensure the government gets the most return from its investment.

The review will be chaired by the President of the British Academy and former World Bank Chief Economist Lord Nicholas Stern. He will be assisted by a high-level steering group of academic experts, including the Vice-Chancellor of Aston University, Professor Julia King, and the Past President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, Professor Sir John Tooke.

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said:

Excellent research drives productivity and is vital for delivering a better quality of life for everyone. The government has committed to protect science and research in real terms to the end of the decade, and now we need to make sure we’re getting the most from this investment.

I’m delighted that Lord Stern has agreed to lead this review of the Research Excellence Framework and I look forward to working with the panel to carry out this work. As a renowned academic with experience of working at the highest levels of government, he and the members of the steering group will bring valuable expertise to the review.

President of the British Academy Lord Stern said:

I look forward to chairing this review of the Research Excellence Framework and to working with such a distinguished panel. Research assessment is a vital element in the promotion of excellence. The excellence of our research is one of the UK’s great assets, which we must continue to nurture. But it is essential that research assessment remains fit for purpose, is efficient, and carries the confidence of the UK research community.

Research assessment should not unwittingly introduce incentives for perverse behaviour, nor should it be overly burdensome. Excellence, properly defined, must remain the central basis for allocating support and funding for research. We will explore ways in which a simpler, lighter-touch, system for the REF might be developed.

Research Excellence Framework (REF)

The REF is the system which assesses the quality of research carried out in UK higher education institutions and allocates public research funding according to their performance. REF2014 was used in allocating approximately £1.6 billion for research to English universities in 2015 to 2016.

As announced in the Spending Review, the government is taking forward a review of the REF to ensure future university research funding is allocated more efficiently, offers greater rewards for excellent research and reduces the administrative burden on institutions.

See the Terms of Reference.

Building on position of strength

International benchmarking has shown that past research assessment exercises have improved the quality of UK research. This review will build on this existing position of strength, rigorous assessment and focus on excellence by:

  • investigating different approaches to the evaluation of UK higher education research performance to strengthen the focus on research excellence and impact while reducing administrative burden on the sector
  • drawing on evidence from the evaluation of the last REF in 2014 and considering other models of research performance assessment
  • providing options for future iterations of the REF with a focus on a simpler, lighter-touch method of research assessment that uses data and metrics more effectively while retaining the benefits of peer review

High-level steering group

The review steering group will include:

  • Professor Julia Black, Professor of Law and Pro-director for Research, London School of Economics
  • Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, immunologist and Vice-Chancellor, Cambridge University
  • Professor Dame Vicki Bruce, psychologist, Newcastle University
  • Professor Linda Colley, historian, Princeton University
  • Gareth Davies, Director General of Business and Science, BIS
  • Professor Julia King, The Baroness Brown of Cambridge, engineer and Vice-Chancellor, Aston University
  • Professor Alex Halliday, geochemist, Oxford University and Vice-President and Physical Secretary, The Royal Society
  • Professor Anton Muscatelli, economist and Vice-Chancellor, Glasgow University
  • Professor Sir John Tooke, medical scientist, UCL and Past President, Academy of Medical Sciences

Lord Stern is expected to deliver his review of the REF to the government in summer 2016.

Notes to editors

  1. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is an exercise that takes place every 5 to 6 years to assess the quality of research produced from UK universities.
  2. The results of the REF are used by higher education funding bodies across the UK to inform the allocation of annual Quality-Related (QR) research funding to individual higher education institutions. This is the university block grant, which for English universities is allocated from the £4.7 billion science and research budget and amounted to circa £1.6 billion in 2015 to 2016.

  3. The remainder of the £4.7 billion science and research budget funds, for example, competitive grants awarded by the Research Councils.

  4. Over 30 years the REF and its predecessors have driven a sustained improvement in the quality and productivity of the UK research base. Costs for undertaking REF2014 have been estimated at £246 million of which £232 million were costs to the HE sector.
Published 16 December 2015