REF 2021: Addressing societal Grand Challenges through arts and culture research

In our recent report on REF 2021: Research Impact and the Arts and Culture sectors, one of the themes we explored was how research, in collaborations with the arts, can address what are sometimes referred to as ‘Grand Challenges’.

‘Grand Challenges’ can be thought of as specific critical barrier(s) that, if removed, would help solve an important societal problem with a high likelihood of global impact through widespread implementation. Grand Challenges, by their very nature, require coordinated and sustained effort from multiple and diverse stakeholders toward a clearly articulated problem or goals. In Chapter 2 of the report we looked at how research activities in arts and culture and partnerships between researchers and the arts and cultural sectors play a role in mobilising and catalysing societal change and addressing Grand Challenges. 

Using a combination of keywords referring to four Grand Challenges which align the key challenges that NCACE has been particularly concerned with  (Placemaking and Levelling Up; Health and Wellbeing; Technologies for Social Good; Environment and Climate Emergency) and keywords referring to arts and cultural sectors, performed an analysis on 90 REF Impact case studies distributed across the four themes, in order to identify and address the questions:

  • Who benefits from these research activities? 
  • What roles do partner organisations play? 
  • What are the processes through which Grand Challenges are addressed? 
  • Are there relevant differences across different Grand Challenges? 


Many cases reported general impacts on society, through public engagement activities, or changes in policy. While there were attempts to quantify the former (for example by counting attendees, visitors, broadcasts, and so on), the impacts of policy changes on society were often not easy to evaluate precisely.

Impact was often reported in relation to specific groups of people who, for example, participated in specific interventions and initiatives, including disadvantaged groups in society – carers, patients and their families, prisoners, disabled people, homeless people, refugees, migrants, indigenous people, elderly people, women, LGBTQI people, and so on. Grand Challenges relating to place, health and environment were often addressed by working with social groups that were particularly influenced by or sensitive to those challenges – such as local and indigenous communities, patients and students, children and young people. 

Additionally, impact was frequently presented in relation to specific organisations including: those who collaborated with researchers to produce a piece of work, e.g., performance, exhibition, event, talk, a piece of software or technology; companies that released a piece of work developed by the researchers; organisations that implemented an intervention or programme based on the research; organisations that implemented or used a product or service built from the research; organisations that played host to activities delivered by researchers.

Collaborations with specific partner organisations external to academia were core to the achievement of impact. While these partner organisations, in most cases, themselves benefited from engaging with researchers, we found they were often crucial in mediating the relationships that then proceeded to generate wider societal impact.

Partner organisations played a variety of roles in the collaboration. Sometimes, they simply played ‘transactional’ role where they use the research to develop work (initiatives, products, services, performances etc.) independently for their own benefit but in some cases, they played what we might think of as ‘integrative’ roles, meaning both partners exchange resources for mutual benefit. These included roles such as: supporting research (providing data, facilities, infrastructure, funding, awards, evidence for further academic studies); using research (implementing technology, improving practice, bidding for funding or awards, commissioning work); showcasing / disseminating research outputs (hosting initiatives, hosting or broadcasting works).

On other occasions, partner organisations played more ‘transformative’ roles, where organisations and researchers engage closely together to achieve synergistic value. This included roles such as: co-developing an initiative, co-producing a piece of work, co-developing a product, collaborating to co-produce evidence. 

In terms of beneficiaries: 

  • local communities were particularly frequent beneficiaries in Placemaking and Levelling Up;
  • patients, carers and their families emerged as important beneficiaries in Health and Wellbeing;
  • schools, students and children often featured as beneficiaries in Environment and Climate Emergency. 
  • The training and development of professionals was important across the board but particularly in cases relating to Health and Wellbeing and Technologies for Social Good.

In terms of processes:

  • cases relating to Placemaking and Levelling Up often involved engaging local communities, to promote and preserve local pride and heritage
  • cases relating to Health and Wellbeing often consistent in the delivery of interventions (directly made by the researchers, in collaboration with partner organisations such as arts and culture organisations, hospitals, care homes, or by partner organisations themselves) benefiting carers, patients and their families
  • cases related to Technologies for Social Good often consisted in the demonstration, showcasing and implementation of technology developed by the researchers, or the commercialisation and further adoption of products based on the research.
  • Public engagement activities were important across the board, but particularly in cases relating to Health and Wellbeing and Technologies for Social Good.

Recommendations for policy 

This study gives rise to some recommendations that could be valuable for funders and policy-workers in Higher Education, the arts and culture sector and in areas relating to the Grand Challenge themes we have mentioned. These include: 

  • the role of arts and culture should be recognised in funding programmes supporting universities and other organisations to address Grand Challenges, by explicitly including within the scope of such programmes arts and culture research and/or collaborations between research and the arts and culture sector. Participation in these programmes of arts and culture sector organisations should be encouraged by providing support and guidance;
  • policy interventions supporting the arts and culture sector should recognise the key mediating role played by these organisations in amplifying the impact of university research and consider them as part of the research ecosystem. They should be allowed greater access to funding schemes open to research organisations, more advice and support in accessing funding should be provided, and specific programmes supporting these organisations as part of the research ecosystem could be set up;
  • “integrative” and “transformative” collaborations generate the synergies and often spill over to benefit external stakeholders and wider society. As such, policy support is vital. Supporting programmes may include activities aiming to increase awareness on the potential and benefits of synergies and to encourage dialogue, interaction and goal sharing among partners. In addition, training provision can be provided as a form of support to collaborative partners with explicit attention to developing integrative/transformative leadership skills in the collaboration development process.

See: “Chapter 2, Addressing societal Grand Challenges through arts and culture researchof our full report on REF 2021.