Research rankings confirm Edinburgh as world leader

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Edinburgh’s position as one of the UK’s leading research universities has been reaffirmed by the results of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF).
Engineering, which, in partnership with Heriot-Watt, is ranked in the top four of the UK for the quality and breadth of its research, is producing graduates who are making a difference in the world. L-R: Sam Ella, Sara Kheradmand, Olivia Sweeney, Jane Elliott, Udita Banerjee

The University of Edinburgh is fourth in the UK based on the quality and breadth of its research – known as research power – and is Scotland’s top ranked institution, according to Times Higher Education’s REF power ratings.

The results reveal that nearly 90 per cent of the University’s research activity is in the highest categories – 4 star and 3 star – which are classified respectively as ‘world leading’ and ‘internationally excellent’, a growth of 10 percentage points since the previous REF in 2014.

Five subject areas – including Computer Science and Informatics, Sociology, and Anthropology and Development Studies – are ranked as the best in the UK based on the quality and breadth of their research.

Three quarters of the research areas in which Edinburgh was assessed – 21 disciplines out of 28 – were judged to be in the top five in the UK.

The results are the culmination of a huge body of work from a large number of people across the University over the past several years – from our teams of academics and technicians, to our research support staff and professional services colleagues. I would like to thank and congratulate everyone whose extraordinary efforts have enabled us to achieve such success. Your dedication and sustained work throughout a period of intense upheaval and uncertainty has made this happen. We are immensely grateful for all your contributions and incredibly proud of all that has been achieved.

Professor Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice Chancellor 

Positive impact

Edinburgh’s submission was one of the largest and most comprehensive in the UK. Around 2,800 individuals – all of the University’s academic independent researcher workforce – had their research assessed.

The REF is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions.

Universities are evaluated on the standard of their research, the environment in which it is conducted, and the positive impact it has on the world.

The outcomes reinforce Edinburgh’s position as one of the world’s top universities, building on its current position of 16th in the QS rankings of the top universities globally.

Strength in partnership

Collaboration with other institutions and partners is key to the global success of Edinburgh’s research. The REF submission featured joint publications and projects with colleagues in 115 countries.

Five areas of assessment were entered in partnership with St Andrews and Heriot-Watt universities and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) – the most joint submissions of any one institution assessed by REF.

By combining Times Higher Education’s ratings for each institution, the partnerships with St Andrews for Chemistry and SRUC for Agriculture, Food and Veterinary Sciences were both ranked first in the UK, based on the quality and breadth of the combined research.

Likewise, the three joint submissions between Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University – in Mathematical Sciences; Architecture, Built Environment and Planning; and Engineering – were all ranked in the top four in the UK, based on the quality and breadth of the combined research.

Supporting researchers

Some 919 outputs from Edinburgh’s REF 2021 entry were classified as interdisciplinary – academics collaborating between traditional subject areas to tackle complex problems – an increase of nearly nine per cent since 2014.

Edinburgh is also increasingly training the next generation of promising researchers. The work of 468 early career researchers formed part of its submission, an increase of nearly nine per cent from 2014.

I am highly delighted that my colleagues have further improved the already world class quality of our research and its application to drive improvements in health, wealth creation and our society. I am particularly proud of our attention to our research culture, notably addressing successfully the precarious status of early research careers with sector-leading fellowships for more than 400 colleagues and targeted support for our splendid technicians.

Professor Jonathan Seckl, Senior Vice Principal

Global difference

A virtual cadaver being used in Biomedical Sciences

Edinburgh is one of a select group of British universities to achieve outstanding results when demonstrating the impact of its research on wider society. Nearly half – 49 per cent – of its research in this category received the highest classification by REF.

The University’s results were informed by more than 180 examples of how its research and data-driven approach has made a global difference in helping societies to become more sustainable, equitable and healthy.

Examples included, in Scotland, how Edinburgh’s research has led to the raising of the age of criminal responsibility resulting in the lowest number of young people in prison since 1972. Research from Edinburgh has also underpinned the government’s drive to increase ethnic diversity in teaching, and helped make Scotland the first country in the world to ensure local people benefit from renewable energy developments.

At a UK level, Edinburgh researchers saved the NHS £2bn across six years by improving stroke prevention, informed the government’s £1bn investment in developing technology to remove and safely store harmful gases from the atmosphere, and inspired nearly 200 companies to adopt more ethical approaches to data use, benefitting millions of customers.

Around the world, the University’s research has saved around a million children’s lives from pneumonia, led to the banning of corporal punishment in schools in several South American countries, and made 175 million smartphones faster, greener and ready for the complex demands of cutting-edge technology such as 5G.

Addressing issues

The results show the University to be in a strong position to continue to apply its research power in addressing significant issues, such as recovering from Covid-19 and preparing for future pandemics, adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, and ensuring data is working for the good of societies.

Edinburgh’s REF success also illustrates the benefits to students of studying in the University’s world-class research-led teaching environment.

Image credit: Engineering graduates photo by Chris Close; Biomedical Sciences by Julie Howden/Herald & Times Group