UCL Research


Reflections on REF 2021 and UCL's promise

12 May 2022

Prof David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research, Innovation & Global Engagement), reflects on UCL's REF results and what the future holds for UCL

David Price

As I come to the end of my tenure as Vice-Provost (2007–2022), I am delighted to have the opportunity to celebrate UCL's Research Excellence Framework 2021 results.

And we have much to celebrate:

  • we are 2nd in the UK for research power (FTE researchers submitted x grade point average), with Oxford (1st) and Cambridge (3rd)
  • 93% of our research is graded 4* (‘world-leading’) and 3* (‘internationally excellent’)
  • our research received a 'grade point average' of 3.50 (out of 4), up from 3.22 in REF2014
  • we maintained our position as top for research power in Main Panels A (life and medical sciences) and C (social sciences)
  • 78% of the three elements of ‘output’, ‘impact’ and ‘environment’ submitted across 32 units assessed received higher grade point averages than in REF 2014.

My congratulations and thanks to everyone who played a part in achieving these results, both members of the research community and those thousands of professional staff who support them: that's everyone at UCL who has played a role in the development and dissemination of original, significant and rigorous research outputs; in the delivery of public benefit through research-informed impact with reach and significance; or in the formation of vital and sustainable research environments.

I am also grateful to the members of the UCL REF team and their sterling work throughout the process, and to members of the UCL REF Steering Group (in particular its Main Panel leads, Prof Sasha Roseneil, Prof Stella Bruzzi, Prof Ivan Parkin and Prof Geraint Rees).

UCL will be showcasing the impact of its research over the next 11 weeks through its ‘Where research transforms lives’ campaign – a series of podcasts and case studies celebrating the incredible impact UCL is having on the world through its research. Find out more about REF, our results and the campaign at the UCL REF Hub.

Moving forward

The REF2021 results will resonate for the next decade: both in terms of our reputation as a leading research-intensive university and in terms of the Quality Related (QR) funding it will direct to UCL. QR funding is crucial because it enables us to invest in the best people and facilities, to work at the cutting edge of disciplines (and, indeed, to forge new disciplines), to provide an environment in which early career researchers can thrive, to tackle the toughest questions facing humanity, to develop insights into the most profound issues, and to help to address the world's problems.

These results should encourage those of us who seek to help London's Global University to fulfil the vision of its founders. My successor as Vice-Provost (Research, Innovation & Global Engagement), Prof Geraint Rees, and his team will undertake a more detailed analysis of the results, and how they could inform the choices we make in the context of the forthcoming UCL Strategic Plan (2022–27).

The greater good

For my part, I now have the luxury of stepping back from the fray, and can attempt to bring together what insights into UCL I have gained over nearly four decades.

Above all, it is this: UCL's purpose and people are intrinsically linked and mutually inspiring.

Two centuries ago, our visionary founders set out to disrupt higher education by challenging its prevailing restrictions and inequities. Inspired by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, they sought to open up the academy to those denied access elsewhere, and to promote academic enquiry into and the teaching of matters of use to society.

This latter aspect (Bentham's chrestomathia, or ‘useful knowledge’) has been expressed in many ways over 19 decades. In the most recent UCL Research Strategy, I put it thus:

We want to stimulate disruptive thinking across and beyond our university to transform knowledge and understanding, and to tackle complex societal problems. We wish to help to enable society not only to survive to the next century – an urgent challenge requiring unprecedented collective action and partnership – but also to thrive, so that the lives of future generations are worth living: prosperous, secure, engaged, empowered, fair, healthy, stimulating and fulfilling.

We should not underestimate how radical a purpose that still is, nor how much further we have to go in delivering it.

But purpose alone is not enough. Without its people, UCL is nothing but an aspiration. UCL must earn its place, every day, as the destination and home of choice for the very best researchers at any stage – attracting, retaining, nurturing, inspiring and empowering them. We must provide the very best support for them, including through cultivating and rewarding those who plan and deliver that support.

I know that most of my colleagues have been attracted here and motivated by UCL’s clear purpose. They seek to develop their capacities and apply them to the most interesting and important questions of their time. They are inspired to share and apply the knowledge they create, and by doing so to shape the world around them. They interpret UCL's founding principles and apply them in ways that suit the circumstances they have inherited. In doing so they embody – and bring to life – our university's striking commitment to improve the world.

Put simply, it is our purpose which attracts our people, and our people who advance our purpose.

We – all of us – must protect and sustain our people and our principles. The difficult decisions I have faced have all been resolved by looking to a familiar lodestar: Does this course of action further our enduring purpose, and does it support and enable UCL's people?

Thank you and farewell

I shall not be abandoning UCL. After a brief break, I will be returning to full-time geological scholarship, researching the co-evolution of life and the planet.

I wish all of my colleagues – past, present and future – the best in their personal endeavours and in their collective efforts to see this wonderful university continue its fundamental mission to understand and shape the world. It has been, and will continue to be, an honour and privilege to serve alongside such dedicated, imaginative, determined and committed colleagues.

Prof David Price