High-performing research

This page looks at key insights into high-performing units of research at higher education institutions. These insights examine common characteristics in submissions to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 which received high scores for research and impact.

Findings from the analysis show that high-performing research relies on two key conditions, supported by three ‘enabling’ characteristics.


People are one the central pre-requisites, in particular recruiting and retaining the best people.

The analysis suggests that a certain staff mix is associated with high performance:

  • staff who are research-trained (PhDs)
  • who are senior (professors)
  • who have international experience
  • whose salaries are funded by external sources.

Research culture, underlying values and leadership

The ‘glue’ that creates the high-performing research unit is its research culture, underlying values and leadership.

The analysis shows that high-performance research units have a degree of earned or accountable autonomy. They are able to get on with what they were doing, and are successful due to their strong leadership and the research culture of the unit.

‘Enabling characteristics’

The three ‘enabling’ characteristics – shown in the outer circle of the diagram below– allow people and leadership to thrive. They are:

  • collaboration and networks
  • a coherent strategy and diverse funding sources
  • supporting institutional and departmental practices.

Characteristics of high-performing research units

Eight factors associated with high-performing research

  • In high-performing research units more of the staff have PhDs, professorial positions, international experience and externally funded salaries.
  • High-performing research units are focused on recruiting the best and retaining them.
  • High-performing research units provide training and mentorship programmes to develop staff, while offering rewards for strong performance.
  • Staff within high-performing research units display a distinct ethos of social and ethical values.
  • The leaders of high-performing research units have earned ‘accountable autonomy’ within their higher education institution.
  • High-performing research units have strategies that are real, living and owned, and more than merely a written document.
  • High-performing research units receive more income per researcher than the average research unit.
  • High-performing research units enable and encourage researchers to initiate collaborations organically as opposed to using a top down approach.

‘Characteristics of high-performing research units. A preliminary analysis’ was carried out by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and RAND Europe.