The REF impact case studies should be seen as more than the product of an administrative exercise. They document the breadth of UK research across the sector and showcase its public value.

More than an exercise - a treasure trove of public research

The case studies present real-life tangible examples of the value of the research that UK universities are undertaking every day.

The public benefits are clear. They range from research which has led to safer and shorter treatment for thyroid cancer, to improving the sound and vibration of cars when idle in city traffic.

Beyond assessment

The case studies were collected for assessment purposes and they were clearly drafted with this in mind.

Universities have showcased their work in different and unsystematic ways. This can make extended analysis challenging, but a wide range of users are still exploiting their value.

Research administrators, and others involved in REF submissions, are exploring the types of impact and narrative style submitted by peer institutions, gathering data to inform a future assessment of impact.

The elements of good practice in the studies also mean that universities can use them to advance the impact of future research.

Naturally enough we also hear murmurs of frustration. Why, for example, does the database not link directly to the REF scores for individual case studies in order to identify and scrutinise 4* case studies?

The immediate answer is that we wanted to reduce incorrect scoring assumptions. The deeper point is that the database is more than a way of evaluating the REF. It is a rich repository of information about the extent and value of public research.

And this opens up a broader issue: should the impact agenda go beyond the criteria for assessment in the REF?

The studies represent just a selection of the impact that higher education research is having. Even so, they provide a useful starting point to tap into the value that such research has for the wider world.

This is borne out in the extent of interest in the studies and how they have been used.

We have launched a survey alongside the database to gather further information on its use. From it, we can see that where some users are looking to inform the development of their own impact data gathering, others are clearly interested to see the types of research impact documented.

It has also shown extensive international interest in the impact case studies among overseas universities.

Seeing the value of research

Institutions, subject associations, and consultants alike, have cottoned on to the marketing potential of the impact case studies.

Institutions are using the studies to extend their ability to engage a wider audience, and as tools to help build partnerships to advance future impact and attract the best researchers.

Subject associations and grant funders also consider more specific questions, identifying specific investments that have caused positive change. This allows them to tap into particular subject areas where detailed interviews and discussion with principal investigators may help secure arguments for the value of research.

The Wellcome Trust were a partner organisation in the development of the tool. They, and many other charities, are taking advantage of the studies to demonstrate the value of continued investment in charity research.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) have catalogued those case studies with research they have funded, with a view to discuss with trustees and consider a wider external communications plan.

In an article for the National Centre for Universities and Business, I have set out the value of the case studies in terms of intelligence gathering for industry. In brief, they provide an opportunity to learn about emerging research areas and spot opportunities for collaboration. This is something to which GlaxoSmithKline, among others, are paying attention.

Policy and analysis

From our own perspective, the studies are also a valuable resource to inform policy and analysis.

We use the tool to look for patterns in the types of research having these broad impacts. We identify collaborative and multidisciplinary research. We explore the range and diversity of sectors that are connected to our universities. We source every-day examples that support the great value of continued investment in higher education research to the public.

And we have deliberately published the data in a way that is designed to encourage wider analysis and scrutiny. For the more data savvy, the recent addition of an API means the data can be cut and repurposed in new ways.

Disseminating public value

It doesn’t stop there. Digital Science have recently published their analysis of the case studies. This explores the relationships between different fields of research submitted in the studies and associated patterns. Their findings reveal a host of interesting questions still to explore.

All of which means there should be no doubt that UK universities produce stellar research, capable of wide-ranging and highly beneficial impacts on society.

Yes, the cases studies are limited by the scope of the REF assessment criteria, and represent only a niche collection of research impacts. So we should be careful not to over generalise or rely on them.

But, overall they teach us a lot about the breadth of research and approaches across the sector. They provide a platform for disseminating the public value of research and should not be overlooked.