REF 2021 and research relations with Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations

The REF Impact Case Study database provides a unique and vitally important lens on research and its impacts in the world and here at NCACE it was the state of the relationship between research and the arts that we were particularly keen to examine. So, in 2023, we undertook and published a body of research entitled REF2021: Research Impact and the Arts and Culture Sector. This is the last in a series of four blogs to give an overview of that work where we sought to gain deeper insights into how research and researchers and the arts and culture work together and in what ways, and how in the process they support significant research impacts and types. It has given us many important new insights into the scope of research-based partnerships and has been instrumental in helping us in our mission to support and facilitate relations between the two sectors and to better understand the wider impacts of working together.

Research and ACE NPOs
In our final chapter, we set out to explore research connections and proximities with Arts Council England’s body of NPOs (National Portfolio Organisations) as evidenced through REF 2021, using the ACE Investment Programme dataset as the starting point from which to explore the REF 2021 dataset. Arts Council England (ACE) is the key funder for the arts in England and it regularly funds a substantial number of arts and cultural organisations across a range of fields including: theatre, music, dance and the performing arts, museums, galleries and visual arts, literature and poetry, community and cross-disciplinary arts organisations. Between 2023 - 2026, as part of its Investment Programme, ACE supports almost 1000 organisations, the majority of which are referred to as National Portfolio Organisations or NPOs as well as a very small number of IPSOs (Investment Principles Support Organisations). We recognise of course that NPOs are not the only organisations in receipt of ACE funding, however the Investment Programme portfolio generally designates robustness with good governance and the capacity to undertake and deliver quality work. It is also arguably likely that such organisations will be engaged in collaborative activities with other partners including Higher Education Institutions. Furthermore, there is a kudos attached to the arts which is likely to be an important factor for researchers when it comes to forging new collaborations and to getting their research out there.

We were keen therefore to understand what REF could tell us about the impacts, partnerships and connections that exist between research and the arts and culture sector. We also wanted to learn more about roles that the arts play within the research ecosystem, recognising of course that they are not funded as research bodies, although of course a small number of NPOs are based within universities.

Our method was firstly to identify two NPO samples from the portfolio and we chose to focus on levels of funding with our first sample being the top 50 funded NPOs, and the second sample a further 50 NPOs from the middle of the portfolio, so in total around 10% of the entire portfolio. We then searched for mentions of each of those 100 organisations in the REF Impact Case Studies database. We also decided to examine the impact case studies associated with two smaller sub-samples of five NPOs drawn from each of our two primary samples. We did this to explore in greater detail the nature of the relationships between research and the arts and how they work together and support each other, as narrated through REF.

From our main sample of 100 Arts Council England supported National Portfolio Organisations we found 337 mentions within the REF impact case studies, with particularly high research connectivity with the top 50 funded NPOs, with 312 mentions with Impact Case Studies. Whilst we see significantly less REF connectivity amongst our sample of 50 NPOs from the middle of the portfolio, with just over a quarter of those being cited in REF 2021, with around 25 mentions, of those that are, almost 40% are engaged in multiple research projects.

We found that research connections with theatres and museums feature particularly strongly in the top 50 sample, unsurprisingly perhaps given the preponderance of performing arts funding in the the top 50 NPO. It is, interestingly, the visual arts that are slightly more REF connected amongst our middle 50 NPOs, even though they represent less than 20% of the organisations in that sample.

We also found, again unsurprisingly, that it is still London based arts and cultural organisations that have significantly higher research connectivity, although these connections tend to be with universities across the UK and not just with London based universities.

When we then drilled into the smaller samples of case studies associated with 5 NPOs from each sample, we detected two overarching ways in which the arts can be thought of as supporting, catalysing and amplifying research impact. These include: Cultural Leadership, where the arts act to support, endorse, augment and shape research and Public and Community Engagement where the arts act to curate, showcase and generate new cultural, community and educational projects and activities from research. These too are broadly similar to the categories identified by Dr Federica Rossi in Chapter 1 of the report.

From the case studies we see that the key ways in which research supports the arts and the wider communities they serve include the following: Cultural Innovation, Grand Challenge Areas (these typically would involve research that for example would have a health, place, or climate related dimension), Diversity and Decolonisation, and Education and Skills.

Moreover, when researchers and the arts work together, the case studies also indicate that they enable significant transformations, generating new knowledge, ideas, cultural activities and skills. They also often collaborate around major societal issues, or what we might define as Grand Challenges areas and there is also useful evidence of influence on government policy, interestingly more typically associated with the smaller arts organisations.

In terms of funding, after the AHRC, Arts Council England is the second most prolific funder amongst the case studies we examined, and is directly mentioned as supporting around one third of the case studies.

What was revealed is a vital, intense and complex web of relationships between the research sector and the arts with ground-breaking work being undertaken that generates new ideas, knowledge and skills, practices, networks and economies. It is work which addresses some of the key challenges of our time and, through that, serves to inspire, educate, enable individuals and communities, create new cultural projects and products, and support a host of wider societal challenges. And although this was a small study, it enabled us to propose a number of key recommendations.

Firstly it is evident that Research outputs and dissemination is seriously boosted by proximity and relationships with NPOs and should be better rewarded and recognised within funding opportunities. The role of collaboration in supporting innovation and the generation of new ideas, knowledge and cultural programmes and products is highly significant. The arts act as a connector and provide vital showcasing opportunities for research to reach multiple and diverse audiences at substantial numbers of cultural events. They also connect research to wider media and social media exposure than may otherwise be likely to occur. This suggests real potential for more ambitious and joined up funding mechanisms to acknowledge the role that the arts play in research. Without its arts partners and networks, we could arguably see a very considerable diminishing of research impact and reach.

However, to further realise the potential of such relationships, further work is needed to support capacity amongst smaller NPOs in building relationships with the research community and vice versa. This is especially important given how many smaller NPOs there are right across the country. It also signals a real opportunity for the formation, for example, of regional and local academic and arts networks where none currently exist or where those that do need more support. It also signals the need for small-scale seed funding to grow confidence and ability in cross-sector working, particularly in relation to themes we have identified in this report.

As we move forward into the next iteration of REF, some consideration could be given as to how to best encourage researchers to more fully acknowledge the roles and agency of non-academic partners. Our sample organisations were often not listed as ‘formal’ partners in the research and therefore the strengths they bring to research can be implicit rather than explicit. In future iterations of REF it would be useful to encourage better understanding and articulation of the roles and agency of non-academic partners. This in turn might also further empower the arts and humanities in particular where there is generally lower articulation of formal partnership than in the sciences, as we discuss in Chapter 1 of the report.

Communicating the role of Arts Council England. ACE plays a major role in supporting culture and research ecologies across the country, a point we also make in Chapter 3. More could be done to communicate and amplify this highly important support and to connect with other funding actors in this space and it has been useful and inspiring sharing the findings of our work with ACE.

Developing peer learning mechanisms. Several NPOs within our samples are in fact based in universities and therefore this fact too could present rich opportunities for knowledge sharing, know-how, networking, support and learning for the arts.

It would be useful to undertake more research to get a yet fuller picture of the state of NPOs relations with universities and vice versa. Our samples here were relatively small and as we indicate here there is still work to be done to encourage and support NPO capacity to engage with research and vice versa. We also recognise that although NPOs may not be present in REF,  they may be engaged with universities through other activities, including knowledge exchange. See for example our report Collaborating with Higher Education Institutions: Findings from NCACE Survey with Arts Professional.

So yes, there is still much to do to more fully realise the deep potential of partnerships between our researchers, universities and the arts and culture sector. But maybe we also need to take a moment to recognise, champion and celebrate the important and so often catalytic and ground-breaking work that is taking place. It is testament to all our desires for building richer, better lives now and into the future and as ever culture will sit at the heart of that.

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