Research Review

Delve into our annual publication of research taking place in the University of Sussex Business School.

Welcome from the Dean

Professor Steven McGuire, dean of the business school

Welcome to our annual Research Review, which showcases the innovative research taking place in the University of Sussex Business School, as well as sharing our recent successes and our plans for the year ahead.

This edition shines a light on our major research centres, which are working to tackle some of the key challenges facing modern government, industry and civil society – from innovation policy and digital practices at work to low-carbon energy systems and international trade. We also highlight the many projects across the School that are investigating different ways to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 underline the School’s strengths in producing world-class research with impact. 97% of Economics and Econometrics research and 86% of Business and Management Studies research was graded either world-leading (4*) or internationally excellent (3*), while the impact of our Economics and Econometrics research was rated joint sixth in the UK.

Of course, our groundbreaking research is made possible by our high levels of research income: we are immensely proud that the School became the highest earner of research grant income among business schools in the year 2020-21.

Looking ahead, the School is revising its research strategy, which is now five years old. Aside from its age and the fact that much in the wider research landscape has changed, the strategy requires revision partly in virtue of how successful it has been. 

The School embraces the University of Sussex’s institutional mission and overarching ambition to be ‘a better university for a better world’ and this aim is supported every day by the hard work of staff across the School. We hope this Review provides a flavour of some of their dedication and passion.

Professor Steven McGuire

Dean of the Business School

Research Review 2020-21 CoverDownload the 2021-22 Research Review

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Headshot of Professor Paul Nightingale RR

May 2022 saw the publication of the results of the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021) – the UK’s national research assessment exercise, which runs every six to seven years and brings no small amount of trepidation to those of us in the business of research management. Happily, the School did very well (see p12). So well, in fact that our annual quality-related (QR) research grant -the funding allocated by Government on the basis of research excellence – is now 80% higher than it was following REF 2014.

This welcome increase in investment power is timely, coinciding as it does with a period of re-evaluation of our research strategy and a re-framing of our research objectives. The increased QR funding will help us to support new strategic initiatives while sustaining current high levels of investment in our research infrastructure, our environment, and our exceptionally talented people. All of this, in turn, will stand us in good stead to face the many challenges and uncertainties ahead, putting us in a strong position to build on our successes and expand our global influence.

Turbulent times (still…)

The past year has seen the continuation of trends that have defined the UK higher education sector in recent times: deep uncertainty and rapid change around policy, funding, and governance.

The UK’s association with Horizon Europe has only just been (tentatively) confirmed, despite the country having formally exited the EU back in 2020. The Government has yet to cement in policy its approach to research and innovation or to commit to an industrial strategy. The UK’s new Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA) has recently been launched and, at the same time, the relevance, function, and effectiveness of both UKRI and the Office for Students are coming under increasing scrutiny.

The general operating environment for most UK business schools has also become more challenging, with tuition fees still frozen and double-digit inflation putting immense pressure on institutions to increase revenues and reduce costs. These challenges have brought a renewed focus on protecting academic research time, reducing operating costs, and recovering more grant income than ever before. 

There are other challenges, too. Although we are now three years on from the start of the first lockdown following the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are still witnessing the dire effects this terrible disease has had on our students, staff, and environment. Medium- to long-term health (including mental health) complications, travel restrictions, social difficulties, shifts in attitude and institutional culture, accelerated digitisation of the workplace, changes to recruitment markets, and a rapid pivot by major funders in response to shifting research priorities can all be directly or indirectly attributed to the global pandemic.

In addition to grappling with Covid, the University is tackling the innumerable challenges of Brexit, industrial action, an ageing campus, and an infrastructure showing signs of severe strain under the weight of multiple and ever-increasing pressures. 

Strategic development

Richard Taylor RR

The above factors are just some of the reasons why our now five-year-old research strategy is overdue a refresh. It needs to be brought up to date, not just to reflect the fact that times have changed but to incorporate the huge amount of learning we have gleaned as a result of navigating these many obstacles and finding solutions to these various problems.

We are an agile and adaptable institution, and this was reflected in the fact that both of our accrediting bodies – AMBA (the Association of MBAs) and EFMD (theorganisation responsible for EQUIS) – reaccredited the School in the past year, following processes of intense and rigorous assessment by specialist peer-review panels (see p26). In the case of EQUIS, in particular, our research was identified as a central component of our success. And our research prowess is already proving to be a clear strength as we develop our submission for the third of the so-called ‘triple crown’ international business school accreditations: AACSB.

What should our strategic priorities be, going forwards? And what concrete steps ought we to take now in order to shore-up our research environment and maximise our chances of future success? These questions will be answered in full by our revised research strategy, publication of which is imminent. In summary, we will focus on the following:

• Consistency in excellence: we will aim to continue generating world-leading research but with an unwavering commitment to producing quality over quantity. Optimising our submission to the next REF requires a reframing of our research ambitions in a way that encourages all faculty to focus on producing output of the highest quality as part of a balanced portfolio of research, impact and knowledge exchange work.

• Impact maximisation: we will seek to maximise the impact of all our research, both by designing (particularly, codesigning) projects with impact in mind and by exhausting all avenues for impact generation from existing work.

• Disciplinary and interdisciplinary excellence: as dictated by the subject of inquiry, we will ensure methods and approaches are maximally appropriate, whether these be inherently disciplinary or interdisciplinary in nature.

• Challenge focus: in accordance with the diverse interests of our research community, we will pursue a broad range of subjects; but those pertaining to contemporary grand challenges will continue to benefit from concentrated internal investment and strategic development of external bids.

• Engaged research: we will ensure our research engages meaningfully and systematically with a broad range of stakeholders, effectively ‘bookending’ the research process from initial codesign through to targeted knowledge exchange and real-world impact.

• External funding: research grants are vital for the pursuit of meaningfully engaged, high-impact, grand-challenge research – the kind of research for which we have become internationally renowned. With the additional challenges of operating under increasing financial constraints, research grant funding as never been more important to our success.

• Research environment: our environment will enable all researchers to excel in their areas of study, regardless of career stage, background, individual characteristics, or disciplinary/interdisciplinary focus.

• Culture and ethos: our environment will also sustain a culture and ethos that recognises, rewards and incentivises only the most positive research behaviours within a diverse, inclusive and supportive community.

• Common understanding: finally, we will ensure researchers know what is meant by the above, and especially what we mean – and, perhaps just as importantly, what we do not mean – when we talk about research excellence. Faculty will understand what the School’s expectations are, in terms of high performance across disciplines and career stages.

Our new strategy will set out to achieve these aims in a way that empowers individuals but also encourages collaboration and citizenship. Mentoring, internal peer-review and critical friendship will be key. As will a deep and shared understanding that research is often, by nature, a team game, to be undertaken in partnership with collaborators and stakeholders. Just as important, however, is the role of individual researchers – their perspectives, skills, personalities, cultures, and strengths.

Our approach will further embed principles of equality, diversity and inclusion throughout the research culture, in a way that recognises and appreciates the strengths of both individuals and teams, and celebrates what makes us and our research truly distinct.

Identity and individuation

One distinctive feature of our work is the extent to which it often combines cutting-edge theoretical advances with solutions to problems that are highly practical. This is exemplified in our work on international trade, transformative innovation, and energy policy, for example. These are areas where engagement, impact and knowledge exchange are part and parcel of the research process, rather than mere addenda to it. Such work stands us in good stead for submission to the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) and will allow us to better translate our inputs (investment and external funding) into equally high-calibre outputs.

We continue to win research funding at outstanding levels. We again placed second in the most recent CABS annual research income rankings, and for the year 2020-21 succeeded in winning more research grant income than any other UK business school. Also on the input side, we are in the process of overhauling our PhD programme under the auspices of a new PGR Strategy, again focusing on excellence across the board, from attracting high-calibre applicants at the start of the programme to delivering world-class methods training and providing enhanced career support throughout. A renewed focus on quality across the research lifecycle will enable us to leverage our outstanding performance on the input side to achieve equally impressive results in terms of the outputs and outcomes of our research.

Of course, we are talking here about the future and our current direction of travel; but it is equally important that we celebrate what the School has already achieved and that we recognise those who achieved it. What follows is a small insight into just some of this work – with a focus on some of the School’s research centres and our achievements throughout the 2021-22 academic year, including our approach to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, our REF successes, newly launched projects, publications, events and media coverage. We hope you enjoy reading about our work.

Pictured first: Professor Paul Nightingale, Associate Dean - Research; pictured second: Dr Richard Taylor, Senior Research Manager.

In depth

Our REF success

The national Research Excellence Framework assessment (REF 2021) confirmed the University of Sussex Business School as one of the UK’s foremost producers of excellent research that creates meaningful impact. The results highlighted our strengths as a pioneering, research-intensive, interdisciplinary school with a distinctive portfolio.

Find out more…

Sussex Energy Group

How to reduce energy use for a successful transition to net-zero.

Research from the Sussex Energy Group (SEG) is tackling key questions about how to reduce society’s demand for, and use of, energy.

Find out more…

Exploring the digital future of work

The ESRC-funded Digital Futures at Work research centre (Digit) exists to find out how new technologies are changing the world of work - from retail and the public sector to finance and business services.

Find out more…

Centre for Inclusive Trade Policy

The newest research centre in the Business School aims to be a centre of excellence for innovative trade policy research.

Find out more…

The Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium

A coalition for sustainable change.

Find out more…

Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals

Our commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is world-leading.

Find out more…

read the previous year’s articles

In the media

There were 1,100 items of coverage in the UK media with a total reach of 2.2 billion (September 2021 to December 2022).

Coverage where staff or research were mentioned without the ‘University of Sussex’ affiliations is not included in these statistics.

Top five stories

Research on NHS test and trace, Ukraine and the UK energy crisis, and Brexit feature in the Business School's top five media stories (largest reach per individual news item):

    1. NHS test and trace 'failed its main objective', says spending watchdog, October 2021, The Guardian
  1. Is Putin to blame for the UK energy crisis?, March 2022, Euronews
  2. Biden fires 'warning shot' at UK over Brexit as tensions boil - 'not interested', December 2021, Express
  3. No savings, smaller homes and shunning family events: Here are six ways the rocketing cost of living is changing our lives, April 2022, Daily Mail
  4. Cryptocurrency broker Voyager Digital files for bankruptcy protection, July 2022, The Guardian