Assessing the non-academic impact of UK-funded research: REF2021 through the lens of international development  

4 October, 2023

UKCDR’s new report, ‘The landscape of UK development research impact: An analysis of REF2021 impact case studies’, investigates the type of development research being undertaken in UK higher education institutions (HEIs) and the impact this research has. Reflecting critically on understandings and assessments of impact, the report presents a new framework of six research enablers to support best practice in the research for development community.

The UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR) has today published an analysis of the non-academic impact of UK-funded international development research. This analysis draws on the case study database from the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF2021), a national peer review assessment of the quality of research undertaken by UK HEIs. Focusing on ‘non-academic’ impact, the report findings derive from a portfolio analysis covering 891 research case studies and a ‘deep dive’ analysis of ten selected case studies. Building on this analysis, the report presents a new UKCDR framework, comprised of six research enablers, to help funders and research institutions enable research impact. 

The research case studies analysed in this report include both Official Development Assistance (ODA) and non-ODA funded projects. In alignment with the REF2021 evaluation criteria, the report analyses non-academic impact, defined by UKCDR as research contributions that result in real-life effects. 

UKCDR has published an accompanying case study booklet that presents the deep dive analysis in more detail, with the 10 selected case studies reflecting a range of disciplines, topics, and impact locations. The case studies and research enablers presented in this booklet exemplify all six dimensions of UKCDR’s new research enablers framework.The best practices highlighted in this booklet are intented to help increase the effectiveness of development research and its outcomes by providing key insights for funders, research institutions, and researchers.

Within the context of reduced UK ODA spending, the increased relevance of non-ODA funding, a continued commitment to research and a more complex global environment, it is vital to understand how research can achieve the greatest impact on development outcomes. This report highlights the importance of the UK’s contribution to international development research and identifies ways in which funders and research institutions can better support impactful research. It aims to help increase coherence in the type of development research funded by the UK and conducted by UK HEIs. Its contents, particularly the new framework for research enablers, aims to help funders and research institutions create an enabling research environment that can positively impact development outcomes. 

 In addition to identifying the types of non-academic impact research has in Low- and Middle-income Countries (LMICs) and globally, the report assesses the distribution of impact types across disciplines and topics. The findings suggest that international development research occurs across all disciplines in UK HEIs and that the impact of this research is experienced around the world, including in High-Income Countries (HICs) 

Key insights from the report include:  

  • Interdisciplinarity approaches to real-world problems: International development impact is achieved across the wide range of disciplines covered in REF2021 panels and all Units of Assessment (UoA). 
  • Role of transdisciplinary work: partnerships between UK HEIs and non-academic actors are central to research and lead to wider impacts. 
  • Focus on wellbeing and peacebuilding: across the four panels of REF2021, international development research demonstrates a strong emphasis on SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing and SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
  • Global research impact: research outcomes address development issues around the world and have impact in LMICs and HICs 
  • Similar nature of impact across the REF2021 sample: the four REF panels share commonalities across the different categories of impact types and impact enablers, while substantial differences arise at the Unit of Assessment level. 
  • Focus on instrumental impact: the type of research impact most often highlighted was influencing policy decisions and practice, or behavioral changes, primarily in connection with LMIC governments and/or international governmental organisations. 

This latest UKCDR analysis highlights the need for the research community to embrace flexibility, collaboration, and continuous learning throughout and beyond research cycles. Emphasising the non-linear and often unexpected nature of impact, it calls for long-term vision and strategies that can maximise the transformative potential of research on development outcomes.

Read the report and case study booklet
Notes to editors

UKCDR is a dedicated team of experts working to amplify the impact and value of UK’s research investment to address global challenges through mapping, improving best practices, coherence and joint action. We support government and research funders working in international development. Our core contributing members include:

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