Research at University of Aberdeen confirmed as leading the world

Research at University of Aberdeen confirmed as leading the world

The University of Aberdeen has been ranked as 'world leading' for significant areas of its research in a UK-wide assessment, which is the first of its kind to examine the impact of university outputs on society, business and culture.

Across the University, 76% of work assessed through the Research Excellence Framework (REF) was deemed to be either ‘world leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’.

The University was rated top in the UK for work of its environmental and soil scientists submitted to the ‘Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science’ unit of assessment with 56% rated ‘world leading’ in terms of research quality, and a further 36% deemed ‘internationally significant’. Work in this area included the discovery that rice is a major dietary source of inorganic arsenic, the development of a tool to make it easier for planners to weigh up the carbon calculations involved in wind farms and a study examining the ways of reducing the climate impact of agriculture (see notes to editors for more detail).

When ranked using the same indicators (of world leading/internationally excellent research) the University was second in the UK for ‘English Language and Literature’ and third in ‘Psychology and Psychiatry’.

The REF is carried out by the four UK higher education funding bodies (the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Scottish Funding Council, Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and Department for Education, Northern Ireland) to assess the quality of research in all UK publically funded higher education institutes.

Its scope has been extended from previous assessments. For the first time it also considers how impactful universities are on ‘real lives’ with measures looking at how institutions work with, inform and enrich business, health, public policy, the public discourse and culture.

The University of Aberdeen came first in Scotland for ‘impact’ in the following subject areas:

  • Public health, Health Service Research and Primary Care
  • Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science (for work in soil sciences and environment)
  • Chemistry
  • Geosciences
  • Business and management
  • History (which includes History of Art)
  • Divinity

History (and History of Art) and Business and Managements were also second in the UK for impact.

Examples of work making an impact from these areas work on the prevention of tooth decay, making IVF treatment safer, anti-smoking legislation to improve public health in Scotland, treatments and diagnostics for Alzheimer's disease, the stability of ice sheets, management of change and health management, and work examining spirituality and health care.  

Other sections in which Aberdeen excelled for ‘world leading’ research include ‘architecture and the built environment’ (5th in the UK for 3/4 star quality research/ 7th for GPA), where submissions were made from real estate with academics working in this area producing a regular index summarising the local housing market, and work by the Aberdeen transport group which helps to inform plans for future mobility.

By a weighted overall score (known as GPA) the University was top in Scotland in public health, health service research and primary care and earth systems and environmental science.

The maximum four-star rating was also achieved by a significant proportion of research work carried out in English Language and Literature (31%), Business and Management studies (31%), Philosophy (31%) and Biological Sciences (30%).

When scores for ‘world leading’ and ‘internationally significant’ work are combined, Psychology and Psychiatry came out top with a score of 94% for projects which include a study informing protocols on how depression should be assessed and work which took lessons learned in offshore safety and applied them to clinical guidelines.

This was followed closely by English Language and Literature with 93%, Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science (where research focused predominantly on food and environment security) with 92%, Earth Systems and Environment with 89% and Architecture, Built Environment and Planning with 86%.

Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, said: “Making a difference to ‘real lives’ through advancements in health, contributions to business, informing the public discourse and enriching culture are at the heart of research conducted at the University of Aberdeen.

“The REF has assessed this contribution for the first time and we are pleased to see the University’s continuing strength in areas such as food and environmental security, public health, business and management and geosciences recognised by the results.

“Areas of research such as food security, future transport mobility, health and well-being, health management, drug discovery and conservation are essential to the future of society and the results of the REF indicate that work undertaken at Aberdeen is ‘world class’ in all of these areas. The University is also a global leader in traditional disciplines including English Language and Literature which make an important contribution to society and culture.

“Research at the highest level requires a first-class working and learning environment and assessment of ‘impact’ took this into account. The University scored highly in this area reflecting the significant investment made by the University in its infrastructure.”


Case studies:

Levels of Inorganic Arsenic in Rice:

Rice is one of the world’s most important grains, eaten as a staple part of the diet by the majority of the world’s population.

Research carried out by Professor Jörg Feldmann of the University of Aberdeen has explored the amount and type of arsenic that can be found in rice and rice products and reasons for its occurrence.

Rice contains arsenic because in countries where it’s grown such as India and Bangladesh, it is naturally occurring in the soil and in groundwater which is used for irrigation of rice in the dry season.

The arsenic found in rice can be subcategorised further – one of these categories is inorganic arsenic which is a class I carcinogen which means it can cause cancer.

A study of market bought rice in Aberdeen revealed that levels of inorganic arsenic from rice produced in the USA was much higher than that in rice from India and Bangladesh.

The Aberdeen paper received such attention scientifically that it became the most influential paper related to the study of the levels of arsenic in rice. It also attracted major global media interest.

Since its publication China has for the first time implemented a maximum permissible level of inorganic arsenic in different grain types including rice.

Using the Chinese levels as a benchmark, the Aberdeen team showed that many European products, including baby rice milk did not pass the Chinese regulatory limit.

This attracted the attention of the European Food Safety Authority who commissioned the team to carry out further tests to prove that a robust analytical methodology exists to determine levels of inorganic arsenic in rice and rice-based products. The Aberdeen group was significantly involved as an expert lab to organise worldwide proficiency tests and generating a certified reference material for inorganic arsenic in rice.

The impact of the research is ongoing, but has been identified as fundamental by food standards agencies in USA, the UK, and the European Union, leading to policy decisions and changes to established practice amongst public policy practitioners under the leadership of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation.


Reducing the climate impact of agriculture

The Cool Farm Tool is an online greenhouse gas calculator that is free for growers to help them measure the carbon footprint of crop and livestock products.

The Cool Farm Tool (CFT) was originally developed by Unilever and researchers at the University of Aberdeen to help growers measure and understand on-farm greenhouse gas emissions. The CFT has since been tested and adopted by a range of multinational companies who are using it to work with their suppliers to measure, manage, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the effort to mitigate global climate change.

The CFT is an online, farm-level greenhouse gas emissions calculator based on empirical research from a broad range of published data sets. It is designed to be intuitive and easy to complete based on information that a farmer will have readily available. The tool identifies hotspots and makes it easy for farmers to test alternative management scenarios and identifies those that will have a positive impact on the total net greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike many other agricultural greenhouse gas calculators, the CFT includes calculations of soil carbon sequestration, which is a key feature of agriculture that has both mitigation and adaptation benefits.

Some examples of CFT users:

  • PepsiCo have embedded the Cool Farm Tool in their 50-in-5 target - reducing carbon emissions and water use by 50% in five years. They have used the software on more than 80 UK potato farms this year for Walkers crisps, which has lead to benchmarking and the development of carbon action plans, both for the organisation and for individual farmers. PepsiCo plan to expand to other crops within their Quaker Oats and Copella brands. “I like the [Cool Farm Tool] because it’s not a black box.  With other tools you can’t do the what-if scenarios. You just pay for the study and are delivered the results.  This is a better way of engaging farmers and helping them to prioritize options. Other tools we've used give generic mitigation options copied and pasted from elsewhere and don't always apply to the particular farm in question. ” Mark Pettigrew, Pepsico
  • Using the software Marks and Spencer with WWF-India have assessed and compared Indian cotton within and outside the Better Cotton Initiative ( in which they participate, and demonstrated a clear difference in greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts between farms inside and outside the initiative.
  • Costco have assessed GHG emissions from organic egg production in the US, leading to an understanding of how both geography and management practices affect emissions. This led to identification of practical mitigation options, which their farmers are now in the process of evaluating. Costco also organised a live GHG assessment meeting with the farmers representing the country’s entire supply of organic eggs to Costco stores. These growers were able to see how their practices measured up against other farmer’s practices and share tips and ideas for GHG emissions reductions.
  • A Netherlands based consultancy which operates mainly in developing countries have, by using the tool, been able to demonstrate to cooperatives of small scale Kenyan tea producers, how optimal strategies for residue management lead to high and more stable yields allied with a 30% reduction in GHG emissions from the harvested leaves.
  • The Potato Council organised a “live” farmer footprinting session as part of a major industry showcase event. Farmers, consultants, and fertiliser companies were present to assess their own practices, see how emissions varied between farms, and how recent improvements in fertiliser efficiency can lead to substantially lower carbon footprints per tonne of crop produced.


Carbon Calculating: Reshaping Public Policy for the Development of Scottish Windfarms

The Scottish Government is aiming to generate all of its electricity through renewable energy sources by 2020.

Research lead by Dr Jo Smith at the University of Aberdeen has produced a freely available tool – the Windfarm Carbon Calculator – that has contributed to the planning process for windfarm developments in Scotland.

In particular, windfarms situated on peatlands, usually located on exposed sites and less productive than managed mineral soils, offer high energy returns and reduced investment costs. However, one hectare of peatland can contain 5,000 tonnes of biologically active carbon. Installation of wind turbines can rapidly decompose peat, releasing carbon into the atmosphere - thus lengthening the carbon payback period - and destroying sensitive wildlife habitats.

In changing public policy and planning regulations, and informing all corners of the public debate, Aberdeen’s calculator has helped the Government fulfil its pledge to become “the green energy powerhouse of Europe” while protecting some of the country’s most environmentally fragile areas. It continues to guide the actions of politicians, planners, the wind industry, NGOs and community groups.