Find out about our inclusive approach to REF assessment.

REF 2014-2021 logo


The most significant external research assessment for UK higher education institutions is the Research Excellence Framework (REF).  REF is carried out periodically and considers the quality of research outputs, the impact of research beyond academia and the environment within which research takes place.  REF is commissioned and managed by the four UK higher education funding bodies.

REF2014 Results

The most recent REF exercise took place in 2014 (REF2014) and the results for Abertay were positive. We achieved an overall score of 2.15, described as ‘quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour'.  Our overall score rose by almost 18% from our score of 1.83 (‘nationally recognised’ quality) in 2008 (RAE2008) and represents a significant step-change. 

The next REF will be conducted in 2021.

Abertay chose to submit more staff and to more subject panels than it did in RAE2008, reflecting our inclusive and growing research community.  Overall, we submitted 30% more staff than in 2008, and submitted to seven Units of Assessment (UoAs) compared to six in 2008, including three first-time submissions (Sport and Exercise Sciences, Sociology, and Biological Sciences).  This was central to our long-term plan to embed a research-led culture right across Abertay, underpinning everything we do in research, knowledge-exchange and teaching. The overall improvement in REF2014 was particularly pleasing as our explicitly interdisciplinary research strategy potentially hampered success in a subject-driven assessment process. 

We achieved some significant successes in individual subjects with increases in the proportion of research judged to be ‘internationally excellent’ (3*) or ‘world-leading’ (4*). We scored a proportion of research as 4* in six of the seven UoAs in 2014.

In an alternative ranking of the results by Times Higher Education (which maps university performance against the proportion of eligible staff submitted, to counter the tactic of getting a high score with a small submission and thereby create a level playing field) Abertay were ranked 76th equal in the UK  Significantly we were ranked in the leading group of modern universities and ahead of some older universities as well as the other Scottish modern universities.

In total, Abertay submitted 36% of its academic staff to REF 2014; compared with only around 22% submitted by the other five modern universities in Scotland. We believe that an Abertay student now has a better chance of being taught by an academic of international or world-leading quality than at most other modern universities in Scotland. We are determined to use that advantage to deliver the truly exceptional quality of educational experience that is our central aim and purpose.

See below REF2014 ranked research in each unit of assessment on a four-grade scale, with 3* equating to ‘internationally excellent, and 4* equating to ‘world-leading’. The following information gives the proportions of research graded 3* and 4* in each unit of assessment to which we submitted, for REF 2014 and RAE2008.

Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

UNIT OF ASSESSMENTREF 20143* (%) REF 20144* (%) REF 2014RAE 20083* (%) RAE 2008  4* (%) RAE 2008 
Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience2.7351121.7150

Sport and Exercise Sciences, Leisure and Tourism

UNIT OF ASSESSMENTREF 20143* (%) REF 20144* (%) REF 2014RAE 20083* (%) RAE 2008  4* (%) RAE 2008 
Sport and Exercise Sciences, Leisure and Tourism2.531919------

Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences

UNIT OF ASSESSMENTREF 20143* (%) REF 20144* (%) REF 2014RAE 20083* (%) RAE 2008  4* (%) RAE 2008 
Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences2.514822.44510

General Engineering

UNIT OF ASSESSMENTREF 20143* (%) REF 20144* (%) REF 2014RAE 20083* (%) RAE 2008  4* (%) RAE 2008 
General Engineering2.082031.95255


UNIT OF ASSESSMENTREF 20143* (%) REF 20144* (%) REF 2014RAE 20083* (%) RAE 2008  4* (%) RAE 2008 


UNIT OF ASSESSMENTREF 20143* (%) REF 20144* (%) REF 2014RAE 20083* (%) RAE 2008  4* (%) RAE 2008 

Biological Sciences

UNIT OF ASSESSMENTREF 20143* (%) REF 20144* (%) REF 2014RAE 20083* (%) RAE 2008  4* (%) RAE 2008 
Biological Sciences1.6132------

Units of Assesment- Research and Impact Case Studies

UOA4 – Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

Our psychological research centres around four research groupings: Security; Whitespace; Evolutionary and Biological Basis of Behaviour; Cognition and Language. Our groupings have a translational and multi-disciplinary approach to knowledge creation and embed end users in all stages of the research process. We work with the police, criminal justice sector, mental health charities, the aviation industry and a range of industrial partners.

Security - we explore: police interview procedures especially in the area of child witnesses; the treatment, evaluation, and management of offenders with an intellectual disability; the role of cognition and vision in understanding the demands of CCTV monitoring; and the role of individual differences in the ability of x-ray operatives. 

Whitespace - we have a multi-disciplinary grouping of psychologists, vision scientists, sociologists, and computer animators who work with industry partners to implement creative and animated solutions to problems associated with display technologies. We also have extensive expertise in the perception of shape from shading and camouflage.

Evolutionary and Biological Basis of Behaviour – we study a range of behaviours in humans and other animals examining the role hormones play in the expression of behaviour. Particular interests include: laterality; hand preference and personality; social skills in humans and primates; and the socio-cognitive responses that underpin adaptive social interactions with potential mates and rivals. 

Cognition and Language – we explore second language learning, language production, the cognitive neuropsychology of language, and the mechanisms and biases through which humans process information about the self and others.

Impact Case Study

The Self-administered Interview: Using applied memory research to help improve the police interview

We have developed an innovative investigative tool called the ‘Self-Administered Interview’ (SAI©). The tool has been shown to enhance witness statements and protect memory. The SAI© is already standard police practice in some UK and European forces with over 2,500 officers trained in its use. It has also been used in major Health and Safety investigations in the off-shore Oil and Gas industry.

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police vans

Impact Case Study

The treatment and management of sex offenders with an intellectual disability.

We have developed a clinical tool called the Questionnaire on Attitudes Consistent with Sex Offending (QACSO) which is designed to assess the distorted cognitions of offenders with an intellectual disability. The tool discriminates between offenders and non-offenders. The QACSO is routinely used internationally in forensic services in the treatment and management of offenders with an intellectual disability.

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two police officers walking

UOA5 – Biological Sciences

Our Biological Sciences research is focused around four inter-disciplinary groups: SIMBIOS (Scottish Informatics, Mathematics, Biology and Statistics Centre); WhiteSpace (a cross-University research group integrating computer arts, computer science, psychology, sociology, biological and environmental sciences); CCSB (Centre for Cancer Systems Biology); and FIA (Food Innovation @Abertay).  Our two main areas of research are: Cancer Systems Biology; and Food and Drink Bioscience. 

Cancer Systems Biology – we have: characterized cell signalling network dynamics in response to therapeutic interventions and oncological mutations and linked network dynamics to patient profiles and gene transcription; characterised tumour morphology linked to tumour grading; developed a multi-scale modelling and simulation framework linking cell signalling behaviour to tumour morphology; demonstrated protein mutations linked to disease; developed new drug therapies; and designed, developed and commercialized new instrumentation for use in biopharmaceutical research and industry.

Food and Drink Bioscience - to ensure the sector relevance of our Food & Drink Bioscience research, we have: established industrial collaborations with major companies; developed interactive software for the industry; established ourselves as the University hub for Scotland Food & Drink Skills Academy; are a partner University for Interface Food & Drink and have supported innovation in approximately 150 Scottish Food & Drink SMEs.

Impact Case Study

Development of a novel light-scattering instrument and applications for measuring molecular interactions and aggregation analysis, including protein-protein and protein-DNA interactions.

Based on 16 years of design and development research we developed the PAM™Zero - a novel hand-held, low-cost protein aggregation monitor capable of detecting macromolecule aggregation in microliter sample volumes.  Manufactured and sold through a spinout company, Norton Scientific Inc., this portable instrument is used in commercial Quality Control and academic research and has been sold to a range of stakeholders including drug development companies, for food safety and water pollution monitoring.

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Male using laboratory equipment

UOA7 – Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences

To counteract human activities that cause significant changes to the environment, endangering natural resources, the Abertay Centre for the Environment (ACE) works with knowledge exchange partnerships to identify solutions and create major economic opportunities to contribute to a more sustainable society.  ACE includes researchers from two multi- and interdisciplinary groups: SIMBIOS (the Scottish Informatics Mathematics Biology and Statistics Centre), and UWTC (Urban Water Technology Centre).  Our research focuses on two key areas: Soil Science and Environmental and Water Technologies.

Soil Science - we have expertise in: soil ecosystem modelling; soil biophysics; microbial ecology; modelling and visualisation; biogeochemistry; statistics and mathematics; soil physics; contaminant transport and mathematical modelling.  We have: developed novel methodologies to characterise soil structure, using the microscopic examination of the internal structure of soil and developed a systems approach to inform sustainable exploitation of soils.

Environmental and Water Technologies – we have expertise in: anaerobic digestion and biofuels; wastewater and waste treatment; sustainable urban drainage systems; sustainability research; and ecosystem value.  We have: examined environmental pollutants and advance bioenergy production; developed innovative technical solutions for water and waste management; developed an integrated framework to enable the assessment, visualisation and communication of the sustainability of technologies; and explored the transformation of waste into energy, leading to the use of new biomass pre-treatment methods.

Impact Case Study

Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS)

Research and knowledge exchange in our sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) programme of work has driven the design and integration of SUDS into urban environments, urban planning and everyday practice in the UK, Europe and worldwide. Evidence gathered through this research has supported drainage policy nationally and now underpins important parts of urban infrastructure, improving environments and their resilience to flooding.

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Impact Case Study

Sustainability Assessment and Visualisation Enhancement (SAVE)

This study brought together two of our research strands: (i) environmental sustainability and decision taking; and (ii) novel computer games technology for interactive visualisation of complex model outcomes. The work informed planning of the £1billion Dundee waterfront development, and changed practice in project design and construction processes. The application of our research has also changed how information is displayed to stakeholders, enabling them to make informed decisions.


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UOA15 – General Engineering

Our research in Engineering, Interactive Media, Security and Modelling & Simulation combine to deliver engineered solutions to real-world problems. The research is integrated within five interdisciplinary groups: SIMBIOS (Scottish Informatics Mathematics Biology and Statistics centre), CCSB (Centre for Cancer Systems Biology), UWTC (Urban Water Technology Centre), WhiteSpace (interactive media, computer arts & games, psychology, sociology) and I-SPI (Investigation, Security, Policing and Intelligence).

Engineering - we undertake work in environmental and biological systems modelling to engineer sustainable urban systems (e.g. developed an interactive computational modelling and visualisation tool to support planning processes, and developed a hand-held, low cost protein aggregation monitor that has relevance in drug delivery and water pollution arenas).

Interactive Media - we integrate the disciplines of computer arts, interactive computer graphics and psychology to design, develop and evaluate computer-based solutions to industry problems (e.g. the development and evaluation of self-service checkouts, and the development of interactive software to support sensory analysis for testing in the food & drink sector).

Security - we translate our expertise in materials sciences to develop novel screening processes to recover forensic evidence such as fingermarks and shoe prints from surfaces that are difficult to work with such as soil and fabric. We also have a nascent cyber-security group with expertise in digital forensics and penetration testing.

Modelling & Simulation - we develop data- and process-driven mathematical and computational approaches to model a wide range of systems (e.g. simulation technologies for up-scaling in complex systems and artificial intelligence for mining large biological data sets).

Impact Case Study

Interactive Visualisation of Sustainability Indicators for Urban Planning

We have developed an interactive computational modelling and visualisation tool to support the planning process of the Dundee Waterfront project, a 30-year £1 billion investment into Dundee. This development includes Dundee attracting the Victoria and Albert Museum as an international centre for Design.

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UOA20 – Law

Our law research focuses on two main themes: Policing and Security Law; and Employment Law and Employment Rights.  Our themes map directly onto the University’s research themes of Security and Society.  

Policing and Security Law - supported by membership of the Scottish Institute of Policing Research and the Abertay I-SPI (Intelligence, Security, Policing and Investigation) multi and inter-disciplinary research network we work with colleagues to develop innovative solutions to societal problems. This strand of our research has developed two, interrelated, areas: a) EU policing, security, and criminal justice law and policy, and b) Inter-agency cooperation within Scotland and the UK, as it implements EU policing and criminal justice provisions.

Employment Law and Employment Rights – we focus on two parallel themes: a)"Family-friendly rights" at national and EU levels, in furtherance of domestic and EU social policy, with support of FAWN, Families and Work Network; and b) Inequality of bargaining power in the contract of employment, at UK, EU and comparative levels, and ways of addressing this issue, which is informed by practitioner experience in handling Employment Tribunal cases.

Impact Case Study

Our research into the EU provisions on cross border law enforcement and counter-terrorism activities has fed into submissions to the House of Lords European Union Committee inquiry into EU police and criminal justice measures.  The inquiry will have a European/ International impact on cross border law enforcement, counter-terrorism and justice provisions and practice.

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UOA23 – Sociology

Our sociological research focuses on two key research themes: Security, Identity and Policy; and Social Theory and Critique and contributes to the University’s Security and Society research themes. We work with a wide range of academic and non-academic groups including the Scottish Police Service, Criminal justice sector, Media, arts and cultural industries and work with relevant stakeholders to influence public policy, communities and professional practice.

Security, Identity and Policy – working as part of the University’s multidisciplinary research grouping ‘I-SPI’ (Investigation, Security, Police and Intelligence), we explore criminological and policy issues.  Our work includes: how to gather reliable evidence from victims of and witnesses to crimes; investigating crime and antisocial behaviour; exploring far-right movements into race and racism, terrorism and political violence; surveillance, cheating and punishment in digital worlds; policy-evaluations of youth, smoking and sex education; and discourses of policy and practice in the fields of higher education and health.

Social Theory and Critique – our research in this area contributes to the theory base of sociology.  We explore: the history of sociological theory; the sociology of literature; the role of social movements; tensions between competitive nationalism and welfare nationalism; relational sociology paradigms (including cultural sociology and European identity); radical social and political theory in political and historical contexts; social interactional theory; anti-social behaviour and moral panic theory; sociology of technology; and qualitative research paradigms in virtual networks.

Impact Case Study

Countering the Culture of Fear

We have investigated ‘moral panics’ around children, young people, and football fans. The work has contributed to policy debates and research processes and has had an impact on practitioners and stakeholders in areas like community work, youth work and practices, and government committees.

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Impact Case Study

Discourse and Communication in Public Life

We have explored the impact of communication across different institutional areas of public life, including health consultations (in particular the way in which general practitioners in medicine are trained with respect to their discussions within medical consultations) and pedagogical discourse in higher education (in particular the discourse on graduate attributes in Scotland).

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UOA26 – Sport and Exercise Sciences, Leisure and Tourism

Our sports research has developed around 3 central themes: Health and Wellbeing; Sports Performance; and Outdoor Activities and Coaching.  Our research aligns with the priorities of the key stakeholders in sport and exercise science and we work with a range of external agencies, Industry and third parties including Scottish Government, Dundee City Council, SportScotland and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland.  Our research contributes to the University’s Society research theme.

Health and Wellbeing – we undertake research which focuses on developing innovative training strategies and dietary supplementation to promote mental and physical wellbeing in ageing, mental illness and people living with chronic conditions.  We have examined a range of approaches to maintaining health including high intensity training, omega 3 supplementation and energy drinks.  Our research challenges traditional paradigms within health and wellbeing and we are actively engaged in changing public perception about exercise.

Sports Performance - we undertake research which focuses on: novel training strategies; the role of dietary supplementation to improve strength and endurance performance following muscle damaging; the role of self-regulation in limiting sports performance; skeletal muscle adaptation to nutrition and exercise in rugby players. 

Outdoor Activities and Coaching - we are exploring what makes people participate in outdoor sporting activities, how they manage the inherent risks and consider issues of self-identity and interpersonal factors associated with this.  Research into coaching looks at interpersonal relationships within sport and the psychological factors important in developing these relationships.  Our coaching research is informing governing bodies involved in outdoor education.

Case Study

Coach Development and Education

We have undertaken a programme of research on coach-athlete interactions. Our work has been used in the development of training courses/educational materials, for example the FUNdamentals courses run by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, and for bespoke training sessions such as the Scottish Institute of Sport’s Coaching Matters series. Additionally, the work has been disseminated as lay summaries/guidelines in sport magazines.

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Female wearing breathing apparatus - male operating the breathing equipment

Case Study

High Intensity Training

Our high intensity training research has added to the public debate on exercise duration and provided information to the sports industry. Our findings/recommendations have been published in lay magazines, books and television shows.  In addition, the research has informed sports coaches and people working in the fitness industry, and has contributed to the debate on exercise for health in the Scottish Government.

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Gym environment - female doing squats while three males spectate

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