REF 2021

REF 2021

What is the REF?

The Research Excellence Framework is a crucially important system of expert review, used to assess the quality of research in UK universities.


in Scotland for Research Power


in the UK for Theology and Religious Studies


in Scotland and 8th in the UK for Public Health, Health Services and Primary Care


quartile for Research Power in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences

Taking place roughly every six years, the results provide information about the quality of a university's research, the allocation of research funding we receive annually from the Scottish Funding Council through the Research Excellence Grant, and for internal and external benchmarking.  For 2020/21 the University received over £19.7m in REG funding. REF also plays a wider role in the academic sector by:

  • Providing accountability for public investment in research and produce evidence of the benefits of this investment
  • Providing benchmarking information and establish reputational strategies for use within the HE sector and for public information

The University’s REF 2021 return included 729 eligible staff across 22 Units of Assessment; together submitting 1,718 different outputs, 70 impact case studies and almost 200,000 words of research environment descriptions for 22 Units of Assessment and for the institution.


individual researchers submitted across 22 units of assessment – 100% of our eligible researcher population


outputs (+ 76 reserve items) submitted for assessment


impact case studies submitted


of researchers from minority ethnicities - many at early career stages

1 in 5

Almost 1 in 5 researchers named in impact case studies

Units of assessment

Discipline-based expert sub-panels for each of the 34 Units of Assessment (UOAs), working under the leadership and guidance of four Main Panels (A, B, C and D), assess three distinct elements of research quality:

  • Outputs: The quality of submitted research outputs, assessed by ‘originality, significance and rigour’ with reference to international research quality standards. Read our research here.
  • Impact: The ‘reach and significance’ of the impact that our research has had on the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life.
  • Environment: The ‘vitality and sustainability’ of the infrastructure, support structures, policies, and strategies that support research, including the approach to enabling impact.
Our researcher community

The Equality Impact Assessments undertaken for REF2021 show that we have made progress in increasing diversity among our REF eligible population, but we are conscious that there is still some way to go.  We have seen significant staff turnover across the REF2021 assessment period, and, while new appointments have been made and promotions applied at all levels of seniority, we have focused on identifying and recruiting or retaining the most talented researchers at earlier career stages, investing longer term in the quality of our research and research environment.

Equality, Diversity, Inclusion:

  • 36% of submitted researchers were female, an increase in gender representation from REF2014
  • 17% of submitted researchers were from a diverse ethnic background, an increase on our inclusion rates from REF 2014
  • 17% of submitted researchers were early career researchers, the diverse backgrounds of researchers at earlier career stages enrich our community and research culture
  • On average, researchers with a declared disability submitted 2.8 outputs to REF2021 which is higher than the overall average of 2.38 by headcount or 2.48 by FTE
Our approach

The institutional submission for the University of Aberdeen is an inclusive submission and includes all staff who are eligible under REF rules. As is required by the funding councils, we consulted widely among our academic community and developed a Code of Practice which sets out how we identified all those eligible for submission to REF, how we selected the outputs and impact case studies for submission, how personal circumstances that had a significant impact on a researcher’s ability to undertake research during the assessment period was taken into account, and how our processes incorporated the funding councils’ requirements around equity, equality and transparency.

The main factor in the selection of outputs and impact case studies was quality.  Each submitted output was reviewed at least twice, and commonly three times, and more than a quarter were also reviewed by external assessors. Grades were agreed by disciplinary panels, usually overseen by a Dean of Research.  Overall, we graded more than 4,800 papers, based on 8,477 internal and 1,734 external reviews.  The overall aim for the selection of outputs was to achieve the highest possible quality for the submission whilst also meeting the REF2021 requirements around minimum and maximum numbers of outputs that could be submitted for any member of staff and rules around co-authorship.

We completed a number of equality impact assessments (EIA) during the preparations for REF to monitor the impact our approach and processes may have on researchers with protected characteristics and those at early career stages.

Vision and strategy

In 2020, we launched our 2040 strategy. This strategy incorporates our 20 commitments for research, teaching and impact. It sets our ambitions to be a more inclusive, interdisciplinary, international and sustainable University, reflected in both the research that we do and the way in which we support our researchers and students.

The University of Aberdeen produces high quality relevant research that can be trusted and makes a real impact on knowledge advancement and outside academia.  Our researchers make a significant contribution in some of humanity’s greatest challenges, and have been recognised in The Queen’s Anniversary prize for world-leading research and education in soil science promoting the control of greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable food production, and sustained research excellence in healthcare research leading to improvements in academic and clinical practice and delivery of care. The University is involved in a wide range of projects with local, national, and international significance, read more about the impact of our research.

Sustainability is at the heart of our 2040 strategy; our annual report highlights the breadth of activity happening across the University of Aberdeen that has a positive impact on one or more of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As a signatory of DORA, the University of Aberdeen is committed to the responsible use of metrics in research assessment and to ensuring that research is produced in an environment that supports researchers throughout their career.  Our institutional environment statement reflects the core values of the 2040 strategy and shows our commitment to attract and develop talented researchers and invest in research related or staff related facilities.

The University of Aberdeen’s 2040 strategy ensures that:

  • we have capacity to sustain the diversity of disciplines needed to address major challenges
  • we are at a scale that allows us to work cohesively across the University and with partners
  • We drive our future priorities through determination to be ‘open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others.'
How is REF2021 different from REF2014?

For each previous research assessment exercise, the rules changed slightly which makes the comparison of results tricky.  Between REF2014 and REF2021, the rules changed significantly so that direct comparisons between the results is not possible. 

Main differences:

  • Inclusive Submissions:  REF2021 provided the option of either ‘inclusive’ submissions (i.e. all REF eligible staff are submitted) – most research intensive institutions likely to opt for this. Or ‘selective’ submissions (i.e. institutions define what ‘research active’ is within their own context and submit all research active staff) – likely approach of most of the post 1992 or teaching focused institutions
  • Each researcher has to be submitted with at least one and at most 5 outputs; an average of 2.5 outputs per submitted FTE applies – more flexibility and selectiveness likely to result in higher GPAs in the top half of the field
  • Impact has higher weighting (25% rather than 20%)
  • Interdisciplinary outputs assessed by slightly different criteria

Hear from our researchers

Supporting fish health by developing novel vaccination methods

Professor Pieter van West, Chair in Mycology, discusses his team’s ongoing research into the development of novel vaccination methods to support fish health in the aquaculture industry

Mitigating the noise impacts of offshore developments to protect marine environments

Professor Paul Thompson, Chair in Zoology, discusses his research into the impact of human-generated noise in marine environments and ongoing work with the renewables industry and government.

Supporting children and young people in families affected by Huntington's disease

Dr Karen Forrest Keenan describes her research in collaboration with charities and clinicians to better understand the experiences of children and young people in families with Huntington’s disease.

Understanding the spread of infectious disease with mathematic modelling

Dr Francisco Perez-Reche describes his research using mathematical modelling and data science to address complex questions relating to spread of infectious disease and social contagion.

Panel A: Life sciences and medicine

Panel B: Physical sciences and engineering

Panel C: Social sciences, law and business

Panel D: Arts and humanities