Our annual Research Engagement and Impact Awards were postponed this year because lockdown disrupted so much activity. Instead, we held an event to reflect both on our submission to REF2021, and what engagement and impact means in our community. Here Professor Dominik Zaum, PVC for Research and Innovation, reflects on our research culture and environment. His blog will be followed by further contributions from five colleagues about best practice in research engagement and communications.

I can imagine that staff in 150 universities around the country heaved a collective sigh of relief when the REF submission deadline was finally reached on 31 March, and the months of planning and hard work were over. Now the intense period of assessment is underway and our involvement does not stop – we have 10 colleagues who are working with REF panels – and the University’s research committee is already reviewing the submission process so we draw lessons for our future work.

REF is, in many ways, just a way of taking count and taking stock of our research performance. But importantly, it’s also a moment where we don’t just add up all our research metrics, be it research income or number of PhDs awarded, number of outputs or citations, but where we really take the opportunity to step back and reflect both at the discipline level and at the institutional level at how we sustain and develop our research environment to support excellent research.

REF matters in a range of ways for our reputation as a research-intensive university. It’s the opportunity for the whole sector to look at our performance and to understand the quality of research across the UK. It matters for league tables, benchmarking performance for the next five to six years. And it matters financially because it informs our quality-related (QR) income – generating more than £120 million from the last REF in 2014 that we use to support research across the University.

Three things stand out to me from the process of deciding and compiling our submission. The first is the fundamental importance of collaboration. Over 100 people were involved in pulling the submission together – UOA Leads and Impact Leads for each Unit of Assessment, the Deans’ Office and the Deans, the Planning Office, the Library team, RES, HR, the Impact team, KTC and Research Communications – and this has given us an excellent model of how academics and professional service teams can work together. Much of this went on behind the scenes, less visible than it might have been because we were all working from home. It involved incredible effort and I would like to thank everyone involved.

Beyond that, I’d also like to acknowledge the number of cross-disciplinary collaborations that we submitted. After REF2014, we took a conscious decision to support interdisciplinary research and the benefits of that are clearly demonstrated in some strong outputs and strong case studies – and the strategic thinking that went into each UOA’s submission.

The second point is about inclusiveness. We submitted 100% of eligible staff and we had strong engagement with our Code of Practice that governed how we made the key decisions about colleagues who were submitted to the REF, whether or how personal circumstances were taken into account, how we made selections for outputs. Over 25% of eligible staff were comfortable to declare personal circumstances so that they could be taken into account, and we had no appeals to any of the circumstance decisions, which I think suggests that colleagues have perceived the process as fair.

And third, I wanted to acknowledge how our research culture has changed in the way we have embraced engagement and impact over the last few years. We have a veritable wealth of work that we could have drawn on for our REF impact case studies, well beyond the 80 or so we did submit. And that richness is borne out in the partnerships we have built and the trust in the research process that has ensued. I’m just going to mention four examples of the different pathways that engagement can take, just to illustrate the effort, the creativity, and variety of both the underpinning research and the impact activities themselves.

The first example I’ve chosen is Professor Paul Williams’ work on safer and smoother flights. Paul developed an algorithm that predicts air turbulence, which helps lower the fuel consumption of aeroplanes and their emissions. This has resulted in both economic and environmental benefits, leading to safer, more comfortable flights for over five billion journeys. So really significant impact, working closely with the American aviation authorities who’ve adopted his algorithm.

And beyond impact on industry, we also see work with the museums and the cultural sector, such as Teresa Murjas’s work with our Special Collections, using digital media to improve the discoverability of archives and working with creative practitioners to explore museum collections and ways of making hidden stories more visible and accessible. Her work with the War Child Archive here in in our own Special Collections is interesting in that it also engages with the open research and digital humanities agendas. In this way it illustrates how impact is not something that is separate from a wider research process and culture, but overlaps strongly with other areas that we are that we are looking to develop and to support.

Our impact is local as well as international, and when we think international we often think of either large companies or large international entities like the UN. But the work that Peter Dorward and colleagues have led on PICSA highlights how this work can be local and large-scale at the same time. PICSA works with smallholder farmers in developing countries to help them assess the weather and climate-related risks, and supports them in their decision-making around, for example, crop choices or their other activities. It also provides training to agriculture extension workers to reach wide networks of communities. PICSA has been enormously successful and is now working with national partners across several countries and affecting hundreds of thousands of smallholders.

My fourth example is the work led by Neil Crosby and colleagues in the Business School who have developed long-term valuation models for commercial property to improve financial stability. This is important because much of lending and many financial products are underpinned by the commercial real estate market which played a huge role in the financial crisis in the early part of the twenty-first century. So the team is working closely with industry bodies to develop planning guidance that now shapes national planning policies and frameworks.

What these four examples highlight is not just a variety of impact pathways. More importantly, not one was developed or started as a ‘REF’ project, but  they were all driven by curiosity and creativity. The engagement that was required was an integral part of the research itself.  And this is quite important – that we don’t look at all of this just from the perspective of REF metrics and success. But REF has also encouraged us to think about the research and the reasons why we do that work, and how we do it best.

As we were writing the UOA Environment Statements in particular, we had to think hard about how we support research as a community, how we support colleagues in our individual disciplines, and how we create and sustain a research environment that supports excellent research. Apart from being an administrative exercise for the funding bodies, we now want to use the REF as a starting point to reflect critically on how we have supported research to date and how we do that in future. We can use all the information we’ve gathered at the institutional level as well and as at the discipline level to help us reflect on what our priorities should be for the next few years. This is a discussion that we will have over the coming months, and I hope we can make that an open, collaborative and inclusive process, as we tried to with REF.