Russell Group universities produce more world-leading research than ever before

12 May 2022

  • Russell Group universities account for 65% of world-leading (4*) research and 91% of research at the Russell Group is world-leading or internationally excellent (4* and 3*)
  • Our universities excel on a large scale; Russell Group universities account for more than half (52%) of the research submitted to the REF
  • In terms of research impact, 94% of Russell Group’s research was rated as world-leading or internationally excellent (4* and 3*)
  • Russell Group universities perform excellent research across each of the four main panels (Medicine, health and life sciences; Physical sciences, engineering and mathematics; Social sciences and Arts and humanities) demonstrating the breadth of their research excellence.

Commenting on publication of the Research Excellence Framework results for 2021, Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said:

“Today’s REF results once again demonstrate the UK’s status as a science superpower. Russell Group universities are at the heart of this, producing more world-leading research than ever before and across all disciplines.

“Quality-related ‘QR’ funding allocated through the REF allows universities to pursue high-risk, high-reward ideas that need long term investment or may be seen as too risky for external funders. Without it, we would not have made major breakthroughs in graphene, genomics, or laid the foundations to develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine in a matter of months. Yet its value has declined in real terms over the past decade.

“The Government has recognised the value of science to our country by increasing its R&D budget. As we face up to long term challenges like Net Zero, now is the time to follow that through and boost long term, low bureaucracy investments like QR that will deliver more world-class research and power future economic growth.”

Notes to editor

The value of QR funding has declined by 14% in real terms between 2010/11 and 2020/21. Read our briefing here.

REF continues to do its job: driving up research excellence across the whole sector.

REF is a core part of the accountability mechanism for UK research investment – ensuring the government and taxpayers get real value for money.

Examples of leading research at Russell Group universities

At Durham University, bioscientists are playing a key role in identifying the impact of climate change on plant and animal life. The Conservation Ecology Group (CEG) research looks at helping different species to adapt to the effects of a changing world. The models they have created are being used around the world to inform conservation policy to help species cope with current and future climate change in a highly human modified landscape. Their research was instrumental in the retention of the EU Birds Directive, conservation policies and strategies of EU member states and informed targets within the UN Environment Programme.

At the University of Edinburgh, demonstration of the adverse cardiovascular effects of air pollution has led to policy change at local, national and international level. The effects of air pollution on the lungs have been known for more than half a century, but the impact on cardiovascular health was uncovered more recently. Both clinical and epidemiological studies led by Dr Mark Miller are helping to shed light on the effects of various air pollutants on the cardiovascular system. Dr Miller currently sits on a UK government advisory group on air pollutants, while the new UK Environment Act, which became law in November 2021, will introduce a legally-binding duty on the UK government to reduce the annual average level of fine PM in ambient air by October 2022.

At Cardiff University, innovative mathematical modelling is delivering improved cancer outcomes, ambulance response times and a new NHS contact service. Realising its potential use to deliver better health services, Professor Paul Harper and his research team set out to apply mathematical modelling to help fix and improve vital NHS services in Wales and in other parts of the UK. They have since worked on a wide range of healthcare improvement projects, including transforming cancer services in Wales, increasing the efficiency of the London Ambulance Service, and helping to design the Wales NHS 111 service.

Many researchers at our universities use their work to drive social change. At Queen Mary University of London, Dr Maggie Inchley’s work explores how socially engaged performance can provide opportunities for culturally marginalised voices to be heard. The Verbatim Formula (TVF) project used film to gather testimonies from children and adults with experience of the social care system, and ultimately change perceptions and practices in care and education. They recorded testimonies from young people who used to be in care, performed by young professionals to create audio files, and are currently running workshops as part of the project to create a film to engage more foster carers.

World-leading research at Russell Group universities helps bring cutting-edge treatments to UK patients. The UK’s first NHS high-energy proton beam therapy centre opened at The Christie Hospital in 2018. The University of Manchester’s research was vital in helping to bring this technology to the UK, enabling more patients to access proton therapy for some of the most difficult-to-treat cancers. Since it opened, more than 550 patients have been treated at the facility. One in five patients treated at The Christie PBT centre would not have received the same quality of treatment at other centres abroad, because they do not have the same state-of-the-art technology.

Research by the University of Sheffield’s Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC), has been the catalyst for a new consultancy that is helping arts, heritage and performance organisations nurture and grow their audiences in the wake of the pandemic. Building on a cross-faculty project, led by Professor Vanessa Toulmin, that found that smaller, newer and freelance artists and venues were most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, academics from the centre set up the SPARC Consultancy to utilise their research expertise to help arts and cultural organisations bounce back from the difficulties of recent years and grow audiences to become more sustainable in the long-term.

Researchers at Imperial College London are using AI to better diagnose and treat neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. New digital techniques and biomarkers use artificial intelligence to analyse and interpret brain MRI scans – crucial information that helps clinicians diagnose disease and spot brain changes during treatment. The techniques are now routinely used in clinical trials to test the efficacy of new neurological drugs, while the newly developed biomarkers (indicators of disease state) are now used in more than 2,000 imaging centres in 50 countries across North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Australasia.

At the University of Southampton, Professor Samuele Cortese led a large-scale international project that provided the first ever comparative evidence on the effectiveness of medications for ADHD, the most commonly diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder, affecting around 5 to 7 per cent of children. Annual costs of untreated ADHD in the UK have been estimated at £670 million. The programme has been influential in informing national and international clinical guidelines and policies. Further analysis focused on the non-pharmacological treatments led to the NICE guidelines for ADHD changing their recommendations in 2018, indicating parent training as an intervention for problems with oppositional behaviours associated with ADHD, rather than for ADHD core symptoms.

For over 20 years, researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have investigated the chemical contamination of foodstuffs for the benefit and safety of consumers around the world. In 2019 after reports of multiple cases of serious food poisoning in Uganda, Professor Chris Elliott and his team at were contacted by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to provide independent scientific support in the investigation. Experts in a variety of different rapid screening techniques such as combining molecular spectroscopy with chemometrics, the team were able to quickly trace the source of the food poisoning, and crucially show that all outbreaks were caused by a single batch of food. This meant the remainder of the batch, worth around US$15million could be dispatched globally to countries requiring aid.

An intervention by researchers at the University of Leeds was the first in medical history to restore walking ability to people with a paralysing complete spinal cord injury. Prof Ronaldo Ichiyama’s research showed that a specific combination of epidural electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, together with daily rehabilitation and medication, can help small animals with severe spinal cord injuries to take weight-supported steps. This research provided the essential foundation for translation to humans with severe paralysing spinal cord injury. Teams across the world adapted the approach in their work with humans, with paralysed people in clinical trials in three research centres across America and Europe now able to stand, take weight-bearing steps and independently walk once more.

Research at the University of Glasgow on coastal erosion risk has shaped national and local government risk management, adaptation and resilience policy and practice. This included the award-winning DynamicCoast, that shows coastal erosion has risen by 39% since the 1970s, with 20% of Scotland’s coastal homes (GBP524 million) now at risk. The team, led by Dr Jim Hanson & Professor Larissa Naylor, has produced internationally recognised tools, guidance and evidence on coastal erosion for Scottish Government and its agencies, informing adaptation plans, climate-resilient planning and marine licensing decisions to improve the resilience of Scotland’s coastal communities and assets. In 2020 DynamicCoast was acknowledged by the Scottish Government as their stimulus for GBP12 million investment in new central funding for Coastal Change Adaptation.

Research by the University of Exeter has identified the causes of more than 20 genetic subtypes of diabetes, leading to improved treatment and better quality of life. Exeter is the world-leading centre for research into neonatal diabetes, a rare condition affecting babies which results from mutations (changes) in a single gene. The Exeter Diabetes Genetics group, led by Professor Andrew Hattersley, has led the way in identifying new genetic causes of the disease and translated these discoveries into improved treatment for many genetic subtypes. Through analysing the genes of 2,400 patients, the Exeter group have found 18 new, different causes of neonatal diabetes and a further four through collaborations. They have developed a diagnostic tool to analyse all 28 known neonatal diabetes genes.

Researchers at Newcastle University are using statistical modelling to reduce death and injury on roads through research that’s helping predict collision hotspots around the world. Experts at the university have developed and applied novel Bayesian statistical methods to create software for predicting traffic collision hotspots and evaluating site-based road safety measures in a bid to reduce casualty rates. A web-based app – RAPTOR – has also been created. The first of its kind, the app is already influencing traffic and road safety policy in over 60 countries. Because the app can help predict future collision sites and potential casualty rates, road safety engineers can introduce intervention measures, including positioning mobile safety cameras at collision hotspots.

Research by experts at the University of York is engaging teachers and students with the latest developments in linguistics, helping to build confidence, enhance results and inspire ambitions. The York English Language Toolkit gives teachers and students access 18 case studies encompassing the core areas of the English Language curriculum: Language Use, Acquisition, Diversity and Change. Attendance at an annual CPD workshop has increased steadily with over 500 pre-registrations in 2020, and the workshop resources have been accessed 3,400 times. The new Cambridge International A/AS English Language 2018 curriculum incorporated all changes recommended by York, including an updated set of linguistic terms and topics that are more suited to its substantial global audience.

Clinicians at University College London have pioneered a single-shot targeted radiotherapy for breast cancer, delivered in the same operation as tumour surgery, removing the need for follow-ups and reducing side-effects. The innovation means radiotherapy to prevent cancer recurrence is completed in 15-40 minutes during surgery to remove the tumour and under the same anaesthetic, instead of 15-30 separate hospital visits for post-operative whole-breast radiotherapy. Patients undergoing the treatment experience less pain, fewer side effects, and improved quality of life. Globally, 45,000 patients in 38 countries have benefited from this procedure, saving millions in healthcare costs and unnecessary travel, and avoiding 2,000 deaths from non-breast cancer causes. 

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