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  • Writer's pictureSaskia Walcott

Levelling up: how it influences research impact

Updated: Apr 23

I delivered a talk at the Universities UK (UUK) Conference in November 2021. The subject was ‘Building Back Better’ and the contribution of research and innovation to that agenda. I am no expert on levelling up, so I came at this from the perspective of what I do know about which is research impact and universities.

If you only have 30 seconds to pare here are the three takeaways:

  • There are synergies between research impact and using research and innovation as a path to building back better.

  • There is transferable learning from research impact particularly around developing clear and place-specific measures of what better means.

  • There is a potential danger that the strengths of newer research emergent institutions are called upon to deliver Levelling up but at the cost of limiting the growth of their research ambitions.

If you want to know more, read the full post below…

Building Back Better is a huge subject and one that the government has still not properly defined. Reading around the question, Levelling Up or Building Back Better clearly plays to questions of research impact and expectations of how universities and their researchers engage with their regions and localities. For me it raises two immediate questions:

  1. First, what have we learned from impact as a policy lever and the cultural change it has brought about that could be helpful to universities and researchers as they contribute to building back better?

  2. And the second, what does the focus on research and innovation mean for the research impact agenda as we have seen it play out through the lens of the Research Excellence Framework (the REF) over the last 10 years?

Impact as a policy lever for culture change

What have we learned from a decade and a half of shaping researchers' behaviour through funding and policy levers to pursue research impact? Well, it has altered research culture, putting a greater emphasis and value on external collaboration and research informed by the needs of those that will benefit from it. There is now a more outward-looking research culture within HEIs, and organisations such as Innovate UK and Catalysts are there to bridge the gap between research and industry. The impact agenda has contributed to a fertile foundation to propel new research and innovation initiatives in the UK.

That is the big picture, but underneath there remain concerns about how inclusive research and innovation is in practice and whether there are sufficient opportunities for arts, humanities and social science disciplines to contribute. There are some excellent examples such as Birmingham City University’s STEAMhouse which places arts and humanities as an equal driver in the innovation ecosystem alongside the traditional STEM subjects. Some in the arts and humanities were initially very vocal about their opposition to the introduction of impact into the REF. For many though, it has brought unexpected benefits as the definition of impact has widened beyond just economic measures and has become more sophisticated and nuanced. Recognition of the many different types of societal impact from their work has created opportunities and forefronted their research within their institutions.

That brings us to some of the most important learning points from impact. And that is what is measured matters and a one size fits all approach to impact is impossible. Centralised goals to level up are all very well, but who determines what ‘better’ looks like? This will differ region by region, possibly even city by city. How change is measured and what is valued most, must be based on the ambitions and types of change relevant to each area for it to be meaningful. This is where the research sector has a valuable contribution to make, drawing on what it has learned from measuring impact and how to make it more equitable.

I am inclined to argue that the impact agenda has played a part in steering UK research towards a wider more inclusive definition of good research, that has contributed to new approaches to assessment that have tried to move away from one size fits all thinking. Initiatives such as DORA, Professor James Wilsdon’s Metric Tide report, and even recent trials of the narrative CV, are grounded in the recognition that a more inclusive definition of good research means embracing a heterogeneous approach to what is measured and how it is measured. Applying the same principle to building back better, will enable a more meaningful measure for success based on the specific social, economic, and geographic context of those regions.

What does the focus on research and innovation mean for research impact?

Research and innovation and impact seem closely aligned at the top level, but there may be some areas of tension lurking below. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, there remains a persistent and rather reductive view of impact as being all about the REF and the pursuit of a 4* case study. This is entirely understandable as the REF is important to every UK university as it has real implications financially and reputationally. This translates into a belief that research-based impact achieved at the regional or local scale was often perceived as less valuable and not quite good enough for the REF. I saw this played out repeatedly when helping universities prepare impact case studies for REF2021.

The possible tension I can see playing out in a few years’ time comes from the government push for unis to support place-based research and innovation and HEI’s research strategy that is aiming for a good show in the next REF. This may seem a trivial point, and I will admit to being a terrible pre-emptive worrier, but I think there is a potential danger here particularly for the newer, research emergent universities.

The 2019 study by the civic universities network and the recent report Putting Universities in their Place by Louise Kempton et al, have highlighted the leadership roles played by many newer institutions located in less affluent regions. These are the areas targeted by the government’s policies for levelling up. The research emergent universities that I have worked with, often have a very pronounced sense of regional identity based on a long history and connections with the local community. But often they are also still working on building a research reputation and their capacity in relation to establishing strategic long-term industry partnerships and policy networks, which their more established neighbouring institutions, already have.

The potential danger is that by focusing engagement within their region, some of the newer institutions might forfeit opportunities to achieve impact from research nationally or internationally. And an unintended consequence of that may be to widen the gap that already exists in relation to the distribution of research capacity within the university sector. It potentially creates a conflict of interest for those still building their research capacity at the next research assessment exercise.

I think that this risk can be mitigated in two ways:

  • First, research intensives and the newer institutions that are cooperating in the same region should consider how to leverage their individual strengths to benefit that region and ensure an equitable distribution of place-based research and innovation. This approach may enable both institutions to maintain their ambitions to build national and international research reputations.

  • And secondly, there is a role for formal research assessment to shift the perspective on the types of impact that is highly valued and dispel the myth that bigger is always better when it comes to impact


There are clear synergies between research impact and the contribution of research and innovation to building back better. Let's use the transferable learning from research impact particularly around developing clear, but place-specific measures of what better means. And finally, the sector should be wary that the strengths of newer research emergent institutions are going to be vital in the pursuit of levelling up, but that this should not happen at the expense of hampering their ambitions as they grow their research base.

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