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.

Our submission


pieces of research by 128 academic FTE from the Business School1


impact case studies – showcasing research projects that had a positive impact on the world beyond academia


environment statements that describe how the School supports research and enables impact across the two key Units of Assessment

The results

Unit of Assessment 17 (Business and Management Studies)

• 86% of our research overall was rated as world-leading (4*, 39%) or internationally excellent (3*, 47%).

• 87.5% of our research impact was recognised as outstanding (4*, 50%) or very considerable (3*, 37.5%).

• More than a third (34.3%) of our research outputs were judged to be world-leading (4*), and a further 48% internationally excellent (3*). • The overall quality of the submission was ranked joint 28th out of 108 institutions in the UK by Times Higher Education (THE).2

• We were ranked 22nd out of 108 institutions for research power by THE.

Unit of Assessment 16 (Economics and Econometrics)

• 97% of our research overall was rated as world-leading (4*) or internationally excellent (3*).

• 100% of our research impact was recognised as either outstanding (4*) or very considerable (3*).

• 94.7% of our research outputs were assessed as either world-leading (4*, 28.1%) or internationally excellent (3*, 66.6%).

• The overall quality of the submission was ranked 13th out of 25 submitting institutions in the UK by THE.

• We were ranked 6th highest in the UK for impact by THE.

Progress since REF 2014

• The overall grade point average (GPA) for our research in Business and Management Studies rose from 2.87 in 2014 to 3.23 in 2021.

• The GPA for our research in Economics and Econometrics increased from 2.84 to 3.34.

Researchers from the Business School are challenging conventional thinking and providing innovative solutions to shape policies and practices worldwide. We’re delighted that REF 2021 has recognised the high quality and real-world impact of our work.” Professor steven mcguire
Dean of the Business School


The School submitted 11 impact case studies to the REF assessment, as summarised below. All demonstrated how our research projects have created a positive change in the world – from transforming waste management in India to using science and technology to reduce poverty and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Transforming waste management in India’s cities

Award-winning interdisciplinary research led by Professor Fiona Marshall led to more sustainable waste management policy and practice in India’s cities.

The research team, which involved a local university and NGO, worked with diverse stakeholders to uncover the negative effects of the existing policy of centralised waste incineration. “Environment, health and residents’ livelihoods were being threatened,” explains Marshall, “and innovative solutions were being overlooked.”

The team’s policy recommendations went on to influence a key piece of Indian waste management legislation, which recognises the central role of the informal sector and localised initiatives. As a result, toxic emissions are reduced, more waste is recycled, and the livelihoods of waste pickers are preserved.

In 2022, Professor Marshall received a Financial Times Responsible Business Education Award in recognition of the impact of her team’s research.

Gaining consensus for the UK’s minimum wage

Professor Richard Dickens’ research was instrumental in the introduction of the UK’s National Living Wage. Dickens, a Professor of Economics, is a member of the Low Pay Commission, which advised the government on increasing the value of the minimum wage. This paved the way for the introduction of the National Living Wage in 2016, which raised the earnings of around two million workers. Dickens also provided the evidence that convinced the South African government to introduce a minimum wage policy. 

As well as changing the minds of politicians, Dickens’ research forced many economists to reassess their positions on minimum wage policy. For Dickens, a key achievement is the impact on everyday lives. “As Commission members, we visit workplaces up and down the country, and the stories we hear of people struggling on low wages are quite sobering. This really brings to life the reality of what this policy means to people.”

The link between energy bills and the UK’s nuclear deterrent

Research by Professor Andy Stirling and Dr Phil Johnstone revealed that domestic energy tariffs were providing a hidden subsidy for the UK’s nuclear weapon programme – raising important questions about accountability and transparency.

“UK citizens are unwittingly subsidising military nuclear activity through their domestic energy bills to the tune of many tens of billions of pounds,” explains Johnstone. The research concluded that the costs of the Trident programme could be unsupportable without this subsidy.

Their findings led to questions being asked (and significant answers being obtained) in a UK parliamentary Select Committee, as well as many questions posed in Westminster and a motion being passed through the Scottish Parliament. The research has also received major media attention, with stories in the Guardian, the BBC, the Independent and New York Times – with clear benefits for the public interest.

Using science, technology and innovation to meet the SDGs

Insights from Business School research have been adopted by the United Nations and are shaping the way that governments worldwide use science, technology and innovation to reduce poverty and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Dr Adrian Ely and Professor Johan Schot worked closely with the United Nations Committee on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to create a new framework for UNCTAD’s science, technology and innovation policy (STIP) review programme, which guides innovation in developing countries. UNCTAD has applied the new framework – which draws directly on the School’s research – in its STIP reviews in Ethiopia and Zambia, with the support of Dr Chux Daniels.

Shamika Sirimanne, Director of UNCTAD’s Division of Technology and Logistics explains the far-reaching impact of the review process: “The reformulation of the science, technology and innovation policies in these countries will have long-term impacts on poverty alleviation, environmental sustainability and economic development – impact that links directly to the research conducted by the University of Sussex.”

Structural modelling to manage risk in the energy sector

Dr Michael Coulon, (Accounting and Finance) collaborated with energy companies in Europe and the US to design and implement new mathematical models for managing electricity price risk in the face of rapidly changing market conditions.

Coulon’s research led to a formal collaboration between the University of Sussex and Alpiq, a leading Swiss energy company which operates in 31 European countries. The collaboration involved modelling for renewables, in particular wind park management. Coulon also worked with three US companies, applying his modelling techniques to power markets and developing structural price models for solar renewable energy certificate markets.

Driving investment and growth in the creative industries

A series of research projects by Dr Josh Siepel, Dr Roberto Camerani, Dr Monica Masucci and Professor Paul Nightingale led to substantial government investment and support for the creative industries across the UK.

“Our initial research found that ‘fused’ companies – those that combine arts and humanities skills with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills – play a major role in the UK economy, growing at more than twice the speed of ‘unfused’ firms,” explains Siepel.

Subsequent research for the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre’s Creative Radar project identified high growth rates and ambition in businesses located in ‘micro clusters’ of creative industries, outside larger, more established areas.

In response to the project’s recommendations, the government announced the £40m Create Growth programme in 2022. Siepel is now on the advisory board for the programme, which will provide six English regions outside London with a bespoke package to support high-growth potential creative businesses and build investor networks.

Tackling global challenges through transformative innovation

Pioneering research in transformative innovation policy is making an impact around the world – from shaping national policies in Colombia to addressing complex social and environmental needs through local projects across Latin America.

Professor Johan Schot and Dr Matias Ramirez co-authored a strategic science, technology and innovation policy document, which was later adopted as law by the Colombian government. The policy adopts the concepts and tools of transformative innovation policy – emphasising social justice and sustainable, environmentally conscious development.

Building on this success, the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (see p22) established a Latin American Hub in 2020, bringing together ten institutions from Colombia, Chile and Mexico. Dr Ramirez, one of the leaders of the Hub, explains: “The Hub is working on local projects across Latin America that use transformative innovation principles to address complex social and environmental needs.”

Promoting climate technologies in developing countries

Interdisciplinary research by Dr Rob Byrne advocates for a new approach to deploying climate technologies in the developing world.

Climate technologies –such as drought-resistant farming technology, wind farms or solar PV – can help countries adapt to or mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. But putting these methods into place in developing countries, where they are needed most, isn’t always easy.

“One of the key challenges is the lack of skills and knowledge to use, operate and work with the technologies,” explains Byrne. “Also, policymakers often view sustainable technologies as inferior. This attitude can be reinforced by fossil fuel industries, making it difficult to overcome.”

The Climate Relevant Innovation-system Builders (CRIBs) approach, developed by Byrne and Professor David Ockwell (Geography), helps to overcome these barriers. CRIBs now forms part of the UN’s $10bn Green Climate Fund and informs the World Bank’s climate policies in developing countries.

Shaping UK trade policy after Brexit

Following the Brexit vote in June 2016, Professor Alan Winters (Economics), together with colleagues from across the university, established the UK Trade Policy Observatory (UKTPO). The aim was to provide immediate research and analysis on UK trade policy. 

“Brexit required the UK to establish a wholly new set of trading relationships that had to be made in a world experiencing rapid and transformational technological change and beset by a range of trade tensions,” explains Professor Winters.

UKTPO fellows went on to respond to more than 40 Select Committee inquiries, which led to UKTPO research being cited in Parliament more than 30 times – highlighting issues of concern, shaping parliamentary discussions and aiding government decision making.

The research also directly shaped the responses of industry, trade bodies, consumer groups, and unions. A project with EURIS – a trade association with a turnover of 1.1 million employees – resulted in 150 industry leaders writing to the Prime Minister to warn of the consequences of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, and to lobby for better trade agreements that would protect income and jobs.

Software tools and training facilitate trade policymaking

Professor Michael Gasiorek, Dr Peter Holmes and Professor Jim Rollo provided consultancy via spinout company InterAnalysis to support effective decision-making by trade policy practitioners around the world. Two research-based software tools – TradeSift and Trade Analysis using Partial Equilibrium Simulations (TAPES) – improved the capacity of practitioners to analyse trade policy options and develop appropriate negotiating positions.

The researchers delivered training programmes using TradeSift to several national governments, regional economic communities and international organisations. They also provided training, analytical input and a bespoke version of TAPES to the Scottish, Northern Irish and UK governments, enhancing their ability to analyse post-Brexit scenarios and support UK trade interests.

Influencing the Government’s Industrial Strategy

Evidence about the economics of innovation had a major influence on the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy, underpinning core policy and funding decisions. The research, by Professor Mariana Mazzucato and colleagues, identified links between the most innovative companies and state investment. It provided comprehensive analyses of instances where the state had played a pivotal role in fostering sustainable, innovation-led economic growth.

Through intense engagement with policymakers, including giving evidence to the parliamentary Select Committees and presenting to government officials, the researchers shaped the Government’s approach and inspired the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which committed £1 billion to fund UK business and research, with the aim of placing research and innovation at the heart of the Industrial Strategy.

At a glance: REF explained

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment is conducted every six to seven years by the four UK higher education funding bodies: Research England, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE).

REF judges the quality of published research in UK universities and considers the impact of research on wider society. It aims to:

• provide accountability for public investment in research and produce evidence of the benefits of this investment

• provide benchmarking information for use within the HE sector and for public information to inform the allocation of research funding

• inform the allocation of research funding.

1 This is the amount of academic time expressed as full-time equivalents (FTE), including part-time staff.

2 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/ref-2021-subject-rankings