School of Biological Sciences Ranked in UK Top 5 for Research Quality
The School of Biological Sciences is ranked fifth in the UK, and top ranked in Scotland, for the quality and breadth of its research, known as research power, by Times Higher Education.
The rankings are based on the results of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF), published on 12th May 2022.
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the UK’s system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions.
Our success is driven by our vibrant and inclusive research culture, where everyone who works with us is supported and encouraged to explore and bring their ideas to life.
94% per cent of the School of Biological Sciences’ research activity is in the highest categories - classed as ‘world leading’ and ‘internationally excellent’ by REF.
The research environment in School of Biological Sciences is in the highest category - classed as ‘world leading’ by REF.
The research environment is the strategy, the infrastructure but also the financial and staff resources that support research.
Our facilities are unparalleled in Scotland and we seek to constantly evolve our world-class research environment to allow the best ideas to thrive, push frontiers, deliver economic impact and drive sustainability.
The success of the School of Biological Sciences is founded on many things, but fundamental are the people and the environment they create.
We take a leading role in tackling the biggest challenges facing our planet – the fight against infection and disease, the impact of climate change and the need for more sustainable methods of producing food and materials.
Our scale and breadth generates truly integrative research, allowing us to excel as equally in discovery science as in solution-led research.
Our excellent REF 2021 results announced today reflect both a balance in our portfolio between fundamental research and real-world application, as well as our commitment to a supportive and inclusive research community. The quality of student training and education in the School of Biological Sciences is founded on the success of our research and so it is gratifying to see such positive REF outcomes.
This fantastic result is a testament to the talent, ingenuity and sheer hard work of our staff. It shows that our world-class research is playing its part in making the world a better place in a way that few places – with a combination of the brightest minds, the most cutting edge facilities, powerful partnerships, and a commitment to tackling sticky problems from all angles - can do in the way that Edinburgh can. This success is shared with our industrial, charity and philanthropic supporters with whom we have collaborated to maximise the impact of our work locally and globally.
Examples of our Impact
The scale and breadth of our expertise allows us to bring together the perfect blend of the brightest minds from across disciplines in the search for solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.
Real-time genetic epidemiology and phylogenetics software inform public health responses to minimise damage from Ebola and COVID-19 outbreaks
Research into viral evolution during epidemics, by Professor Andrew Rambaut, has guided the response to the Ebola Zaire outbreak in Western Africa and the global SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic.
The Bayesian Evolutionary Analysis Sampling Trees (BEAST) phylogenetics software and Professor Rambaut’s research into real time genetic epidemiology have been used to understand the spread of, and to inform the policy and health service response to viral outbreaks worldwide.
They are used to determine disease origin and transmission issues in specific situations, and the information is used to inform policy decisions that impact the health of millions.
Internationally, Rambaut’s group was the first to demonstrate the rapid spread and evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in China, showing that it had been circulating for a shorter time than previously estimated. His work contributed to discrediting the ‘lab-origin’ theory for coronavirus.
Profile – Professor Andrew Rambaut
UK launches £20m whole genome sequence alliance to map spread of coronavirus
Understanding of pollinator resources and hotspots leads to Edinburgh Council policy changes and increased biodiversity in urban areas
Research, led by Professor Graham Stone, on the importance and significance of urban pollinating insects has resulted in a greater understanding of their significance.
Policy changes have been implemented to increase urban meadow spaces and a seed mix has been designed to attract urban pollinator species. This has led to:
- Increased pollinator numbers and species richness in urban Edinburgh.
- Cost savings to Edinburgh Council from relaxing mowing, allowing wildflowers to grow.
- Positive public feedback and enhancement of greenspace biodiversity by planting wildflower meadows.
- Publication of a “Pollinator Strategy for Scotland”, towards fulfilment of Aichi targets.
The use of Edinburgh parks, as an example in Europe-wide policy meetings, has contributing to national (UK) and European Commission (EU Pollinators Initiative) strategies for enhancement of urban greenspace biodiversity.
Profile Professor Graham Stone
City gardens help pollinating insects to thrive, study shows
Research led by Professor Francisca Mutapi, in close collaboration with The University of Zimbabwe, led to a reduction in schistosomiasis (Bilharzia) and has influenced national control policies.
This work provided the evidence base leading to the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, thus correcting a significant and long-standing health inequity, and making ~50 million pre-school African children eligible for schistosomiasis treatment.
Schistosomiasis is an infection caused by a parasitic worm that lives in fresh water in the tropics. Those who have been infected for a long time may experience liver damage, kidney failure, infertility, or bladder cancer. In children, it can cause poor growth and learning difficulty.
Profile – Professor Francisca Mutapi
Urgent action is needed to tackle impact of early childhood schistosomiasis on education
Research by Professor Evelyn Telfer and colleagues on the preservation and maturation of ovarian and testicular tissue has opened up new possibilities for cancer patients to retain their fertility.
Long-term storage of ovary/testicular tissue is now available to cancer patients across the UK and fertility preservation through the cryopreservation of ovarian and testis tissue has been integrated into guideline documents worldwide and adopted into clinical practice internationally.
Professor Telfer’s research focuses on female fertility preservation and in understanding the mechanisms underpinning egg development. Her research made headlines around the world in 2018 by growing egg cells to maturity outside the human body for the first time.
Profile - Professor Evelyn Telfer
Cultivation and genetic manipulation of cyanobacteria boosts production of natural blue food colouring, and investment at commercial partner ScotBio
Research on the cultivation and genetic manipulation of cyanobacteria by Andrew Free, Alistair McCormick, Baojun Wang and Attila Molnar has allowed commercial partner ScotBio to produce a more consistent and purer natural blue dye (phycocyanin) in demand worldwide.
Phycocyanin is produced by cyanobacteria - a blue-green algae. Global awareness of food additives has increased demand for natural and safe colourings significantly so that demand for naturally blue phycocyanin has outstripped supply.
ScotBio is a Scottish SME focusing on food grade production of phycocyanin. They have adopted new processes, developed in partnership with researchers at the School of Biological Sciences, which have led to an increase in yield & quality of their product. This blue pigment is now used in food, cosmetics, textiles and pharmaceuticals.
Profile – Dr Alistair McCormick
Natural blue food colouring gets eco-friendly production boost
Research into stem cell biology leads to an engagement programme that increases patients’, educators’ and the public’s understanding of current and potential applications of stem cells
Impact has been achieved through a large-scale programme of public engagement in stem cell research and regenerative medicine - the EuroStemCell project - that has arisen from and utilises research carried out at the University of Edinburgh.
Stem cells are the body’s natural reservoir – replenishing stocks of specialised cells that have been used up or damaged. They could be used to study and treat disease as well as providing a way of testing new medical treatments.
EuroStemCell, led by Professor Clare Blackburn, has promoted informed decision-making among non-specialists, and public acceptance of stem cell-based research and future therapies in Europe.
Patients have benefited from active participation and access to reliable information. EuroStemCell collaborates with people affected by conditions to develop resources suited to their needs.
Science communications practitioners and teachers have benefited from resources and training to deliver high-quality public engagement and science education.
Profile – Professor Clare Blackburn
Mutations in the HIV genome are used to combat drug resistance, for tracking infection, and in litigation
Research by Professor Andrew Leigh-Brown into genetic mutations and transmission patterns in HIV have improved patient treatment, drug development, and contact tracing, which is now called upon during court cases in Scotland, England and Wales.
Sets of HIV mutations identified by Professor Leigh Brown are included in the Stanford HIV Drug Resistance Data base, plus an UK-equivalent database. These are used by clinicians treating patients with HIV, by public health officials’ monitoring HIV drug resistance, and by pharmaceutical companies developing new drugs to fight HIV.
Public Health England and the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC) now use HIV sequence data to track transmission in populations, and it is a cornerstone of “Ending the Epidemic –A Plan for America”. Genetic contact tracing has also allowed the identification of hidden at risk groups.
Profile – Professor Andrew Leigh-Brown
Understanding the genetic diversity of forest trees has led to creation of the UK’s first two genetic conservation units and changes to conservation policy
Research by Professor Richard Ennos into the genetic diversity and susceptibility to disease of forest trees has led to greater understanding of forest management, policy change and conservation of natural forests.
The research has led to creation of the UK’s first genetic conservation unit (GCU) in Benn Eighe by Scottish Natural Heritage, as well as the more recent development of a second GCU in Benn Shieldaig by the Woodland Trust.
The research’s policy outcomes, especially the Woodland Trust’s ‘UK and Ireland Sourced and Grown’ labelling, influenced the planting of 2,000,000 trees per year in the UK, and has had a significant impact on the government’s targets to increase wooded areas to 3-5% of the UK.
Profile - Professor Richard Ennos
Blight on Scottish forests - Overseas pine threat to native species
Research on exhausted T-cells leads to creation of a spinout providing immune-oncology assays to the pharmaceutical industry, supporting drug development efforts.
Research in immunology by Professor Steve Anderton has led to the creation of Aquila BioMedical, a Contract Research Organization (CRO), founded in 2011 to facilitate drug development.
Professor Anderton’s research focused on the signals that lead to the activation of T cells that cause autoimmune and allergic pathology.
Aquila is a leader in the provision of immuno-oncology assays - a promising area of drug development that aims to refresh T-cells that are currently in an ‘exhausted’ state. This is a key potential therapy for cancer and an active area in drug discovery programmes.
Profile – Professor Steve Anderton
FAQs - Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is carried out approximately every 6-7 years to:
- assess the quality of research across UK universities.
- show the quality and output of research on a domestic and global stage.
- show the impact research has on the academic environment and our society, and highlight its real-world benefits.
The REF is jointly conducted by the four UK higher education funding bodies:
- Research England (RE)
- Scottish Funding Council (SFC)
- Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW)
- Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE)
REF is managed by a team, based at Research England, and a steering group from the four funding bodies.
The four UK higher education funding bodies use the REF to inform the allocation of around £2 billion of research funding per year. The thoroughness of the exercise is designed to provide accountability for public investment in research, demonstrating its benefits and impact.
Higher Education (HE) institutions submit evidence of their research activity, which include:
- Research outputs made publicly available between 2014 and 2020.
- Impact case studies detailing real world benefits the research has delivered.
- Evidence of how the research environment has supported the research and its application or impact.
Research output - is any form of research published, or otherwise made publicly available, within the set period, such as chapters in books, designs, exhibitions, journal articles, authored books and performances.
Impact Case Studies - Illustrating the real-world impact of and benefits the research delivers is a vital element of the REF, and how it brings tangible changes to aspects of society and life and the public value it delivers.
Research environment - looks at the strategy, resources and infrastructure that support research.
Each participating university was required to submit all staff with significant responsibility for research. 157 UK universities participated in the exercise.
Times Higher Education (THE) REF 2021 – Biological Sciences
University of Edinburgh REF 2021 Results - Research rankings confirm Edinburgh as world leader