Celebrating the impact of Wales’s research

A blog by Kirstie Hewlett and Saba Hinrichs-Krapels, King’s College London, authors of ‘Impacts of  academic research from Welsh universities’

We and colleagues from the Policy Institute at King’s College London have carried out several analyses exploring the impact case studies submitted to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014), the national assessment of the quality of UK universities’ research.

We first looked at all 6,679 non-redacted impact case studies submitted to REF 2014. Then followed commissions to undertake further analyses of sub-samples, including a study funded by the National Institute for Health Research and another on international development. Now, for the first time, we have published a report, commissioned by the Learned Society of Wales, in which we analysed all of the case studies submitted for a single devolved country – the 273 impact case studies submitted from universities in Wales.

While amounting to just 4% of the UK’s total submissions, Wales outperformed all other countries within the UK in the impact component of REF 2014: 49% of impacts reported by higher education institutions (HEIs) in Wales were judged as outstanding (4*), compared to the overall UK average of 44%; and a further 37% of impacts in Wales were judged as being very considerable (3*).

Wales’s performance in the REF highlights how research from a small country, with a small number of HEIs, can produce profound changes and benefits both regionally and internationally. Our report, ‘Impacts of Academic Research from Welsh Universities’, which launched this week, provides the first comprehensive analysis of the impacts that originated from research undertaken in Wales. Combining a comparative analysis of Wales’s submissions against the rest of the UK, and a qualitative analytical approach, the report offers in-depth insights into impacts emerging from Welsh research and its beneficiaries, as well as the activities that translated this research into impact.

Placing Wales’s research in context

The areas of research that led to impact for Welsh HEIs were comparable to those within the rest of the UK, with the same proportion of case studies originating from research in the Life Sciences, Engineering and Physical Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Arts and Humanities. Yet certain disciplines, such as Modern Languages and Linguistics, and the Allied Health Professions, Health Services and Primary Care, saw a relatively greater number of submissions from Wales compared to the rest of the UK.

There was also considerable interdisciplinarity both in the originating research and associated impact topics – a pattern that was again reflected in the full set of impact case studies submitted from the rest of the UK. And we found further commonality in the most frequently occurring impact topics, among which were ‘Informing government policy’, ‘Parliamentary scrutiny’, ‘Media’ and ‘Technology commercialisation’. A notable outlier for Wales, however, was the impact topic ‘Languages of the British Isles’.

Locating the impact of research from Wales

That Wales’s research achieves considerable international reach is already well established (see the ‘International Comparative Performance of the Welsh Research Base’ study). And this was evident in the REF too, with geotagging revealing that Wales’s impact submissions covered 102 countries across six continents. But we wanted to be able to differentiate between reach and impact. We wanted to know which of the activities in these countries translated into tangible impacts. Which sectors benefitted globally from research originating from Wales? And which had a more direct benefit to Wales?

We found that research broadly in the Life Sciences, and in Advanced Materials and Manufacturing, and Energy and the Environment within Engineering and Physical Sciences, had the greatest tendency to translate into impacts abroad. The three disciplinary areas that saw the most submissions from Wales HEIs also showed comparatively higher levels of impact internationally, these being: Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy; Business and Management; and Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience.

Across all 273 submissions, research from Wales impacted on a variety of sectors, ranging from developing or reforming government policy to informing clinical practice in health and social care settings.

But what was the benefit to the regions from which the research originated? Just over one-third of case studies reported specifically on impacts within Wales, many of which complemented activities within the UK and abroad.

These showed a remarkably distinct profile. While impacts on policy and society remained prominent, reflecting trends in the Welsh submission as a whole, when we looked at the geographic distribution of impact relative to the size of the sector, we also found that culture, heritage and the economy were important areas for research impact within Wales. This might take the form of contributing to the reform of Welsh government policy, transforming public awareness on topics ranging from equality to national identity, increasing participation in the arts, or supporting national economic growth.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) were a key beneficiary in relation to the latter, with many of the impacts relating to economic growth in Wales foregrounding complementary research and policy initiatives to support the growth of start-ups and small businesses, and to encourage industry within Wales. The public was also a notable beneficiary locally, reflecting initiatives from researchers in Wales to empower, connect and make provisions for local, and especially rural, communities.

These impacts were commonly the result of multiple activities that translated the original research into a medium that enabled the impact to take place. These ranged from the dissemination of research findings to collaborations with direct adopters of the research, such as engaging with policymakers via participation in working groups, select committees, or in private briefings.

Over two-thirds of case studies produced examples where such beneficiaries directly adopted their research in practice. This was especially so with policymakers and local governments, as well as professionals from health and social care, and science, engineering, manufacturing and industry.

Where next?

There are, by now, well-known caveats for using REF case studies as subjects for analysis. Most importantly, REF presents an illustrative sample of wider impacts: the full set of impact narratives reported does not reflect the complete research landscape. Many more examples of research impact within Wales are currently undocumented.

While this study is unique in that it was possible to read and analyse all of the case studies available using the original raw data, further insights could be drawn by interviewing the researchers, who have contributed to this diverse and fascinating set of impacts.

Moreover, while REF is a useful starting point to gain a holistic view of research impact, it would be instructive to zoom out from the highly focused narratives that were submitted to REF 2014. What was evident in the REF case studies was that taxpayer investment in Welsh research falls into a wider ecosystem of funding and commercialisation that is often proactively and strategically cultivated with an eye to impact beyond the academy. Tracing the pathways from funding to the types and locations of impact, and the networks of non-academic collaborators that have helped to facilitate them, would help to further understand the success of the model adopted in Wales.

The full text of the study can be found here.