Assessing quality research in the UK: new key roles for chemical engineers

16th April 2018

Science and engineering research is key to innovation as society evolves. Breakthroughs are happening every day, all over the world, in laboratories and in field research.

Assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, evaluating its impact to ensure world-class, dynamic and responsive studies are maintained, and providing accountability for public investment is a big job - and one carried out by the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

REF recently announced those appointed to the main panel and sub-panels for the criteria and assessment stages of REF 2021.

Among the sub-panel members are three chemical engineers, who will play a crucial role in the upcoming review on the Engineering sub-panel.

Adisa Azapagic FIChemE, University of Manchester, will be on the assessment phase of the panel; and Peter Fryer FIChemE, University of Birmingham, and Raffaella Ocone FIChemE, Heriot-Watt University, will both play a part in the criteria phase. These three individuals represent a wide range of expertise within chemical engineering. They were selected from 4,000 nominations, received for the roles across REF’s four main panels and 34 sub-panels. Congratulations to them all.

In today’s blog we’ll be looking at each of these engineers in more detail, and helping you to understand more about REF and why it’s important to chemical engineering education and research.

What is REF and how does it work?

The first REF exercise took place in 2014 (replacing the previous Research Assessment Exercise), and the next will be carried out in 2021.

For each submission, three distinct elements are assessed: the quality of outputs (e.g. publications, performances, and exhibitions), the impact or research beyond academia, and the environment that supports research.

Why is this important for chemical engineering?

One of the most important changes relevant to chemical engineering research since the REF 2014 exercise was to the structure of the engineering UOA.

But, the breadth of disciplines covered by this new assessment unit means its structure and size will first need to be defined by the Engineering sub-panel.

The right criteria and guidelines will ensure that the UK’s world-leading chemical engineering research and the important role chemical engineers play in the research and innovation landscape is acknowledged and appropriately assessed.

The new sub-panel members

Adisa Azapagic, Peter Fryer, and Raffaella Ocone are the only chemical engineers that have been appointed to the engineering sub-panel, and will join the 33 other engineering professionals on the sub-panel, who will either work on the criteria phase, or assessment phase of REF.

Raffaella and Peter will be joining the criteria phase, which will take place in 2018. They will work alongside other experts in the Engineering sub-panel to develop detailed guidance and criteria for REF 2021.

Raffaella Ocone

Raffaella is Professor of Chemical Engineering at Heriot-Watt University. Her research interests focus on modelling complex systems and include hydrodynamics of granular materials and particle laden flow, continuum lumping of multicomponent systems and carbon capture. Raffaella is a Fellow of IChemE, Chair of the IChemE UK Research Committee, Chair of Particle Technology Special Interest Group (SIG), and a member of IChemE’s Education and Accreditation Forum.

Peter FryerPhoto: University of Birmingham

Peter is Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham. His research interests focus on applying the principles of chemical engineering to the problems of the food industry and include hygienic design of processes and the impact of processes on food structure and texture. Peter is a Fellow of IChemE, editor of Food and Bioproducts Processing, committee member of the Food & Drink SIG and represented IChemE at the International Conference on Engineering and Food.

REF’s assessment phase will begin in late 2020 and continue throughout 2021. Adisa will be joining the Engineering sub-panel for this phase, which will fully assess the submissions made by the institutions.

Adisa is Professor of Sustainable Chemical Engineering at The University of Manchester, where she heads Sustainable Industrial Systems, an internationally-leading research group applying principles of sustainable development and life cycle thinking in industrial practice. She is a fellow of IChemE, the founding Editor-in-Chief of Sustainable Production and Consumption, and Editor-in-Chief of Process Safety and Environmental Protection.

Adisa Azapagic

Adisa said: “I feel honoured to be one of the few chemical engineers appointed to the Engineering sub-panel. If my experience from the last REF is anything to go by, it is going to be a lot of hard work, but I’m looking forward to working with the colleagues and contributing to the evaluation process.”

What’s next?

The criteria sub-panel is expected to meet soon and, during 2018, they will develop draft guidance and consult on the UOA criteria, including their approach to assessing submissions and the discreet discipline areas where multiple submissions could be made.

Depending on the guidance set out by the Engineering sub-panel, the engineering UOA may seek further nominations for the assessment stage of the REF 2021 exercise and may ask IChemE to contribute as a nominating body.

IChemE would also like to ensure the interests of the chemical engineering research community are represented during any consultations carried out by the engineering assessment unit in 2018-19. If you would like to contribute to this work in the future, please contact

Case studies from the previous REF exercise were used by IChemE’s UK Research Committee to produce Chemical Engineering Matters for a Modern World and celebrate the impact of chemical engineering research on the world around us. You can read more on Chemical Engineering Matters on IChemE’s website.