Go back

Credit where it is due

Andrea Nolan celebrates the often unsung research achievements of Scotland’s modern universities

Research at our modern universities thrives across all disciplines. The diversity of our focus makes this a rich resource, delivering economic, social and cultural impact for the communities we serve. Yet, too often, it is the older research-intensives that claim the limelight.

But Scotland’s modern institutions are an instrumental part of the research landscape—just look at the Research Excellence Framework. This year’s REF2021 results demonstrate the collective research power of the six MillionPlus modern universities in Scotland with significant growth in REF outcomes: a 13 per cent increase in overall excellent and world-leading research and 14 per cent increase in research impact alongside a large growth in research capacity.

This has been accompanied by positive outcomes in government funding, with the MillionPlus institutions increasing their Research Excellence Grants by more than £3m—among the most significant increases in funding seen across Scottish institutions.

At Edinburgh Napier University, we’re delighted to have seen a 15 per cent increase in overall excellent and world-leading research and a 16 per cent increase in research impact. This was delivered alongside more than a doubling of staff engaged in life-changing research.


These results have shown not only the strength, breadth and depth of Scotland’s overall research system, but the key role that modern universities play in the research landscape. Research undertaken by moderns is innovative, often applied and translational, bridging the gap between academia and business.

One example of this at Edinburgh Napier is Cyan Forensics, a cybersecurity spinout founded in 2016 and based on research by a university team overseen by Bill Buchanan, a professor in our School of Computing. Cyan Forensics’s technology finds time-critical digital evidence in minutes instead of days, helping police in highly sensitive investigations such as child sexual exploitation and counterterrorism.

Fresh out of the gate, the spinout won the Best Cyber Startup award at the 2018 Scottish Cyber Awards. Since then it has secured international recognition, and in 2021 the company secured £8m in investment. It is already making a significant impact on counter terror and child sexual abuse investigations in the UK, with plans in place to build on this momentum in mainland Europe and the US.

In contrast to Edinburgh Napier’s position in the capital, many of the research outputs in the University of Highlands and Islands tackle the specific challenges faced in the more rural areas in which they are based, with a particular focus on Earth systems and environmental sciences. In fact, modern universities have proven themselves particularly adept at responding to the needs of their local communities. 

Abertay University’s work is aiming to make Dundee Scotland’s capital for the cybersecurity industry; Queen Margaret University is leading work in global health and development; and health researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University received a top international impact award this spring for their HIV and hepatitis C prevention research.

These examples just scratch the surface of the broad ranging research ongoing in Scotland’s modern universities, demonstrating their critical role and contribution in Scottish society as key players in the research and innovation space.

Government backing

The recognition of our research excellence through the REF results and associated funding this year is truly welcome. But we won’t rest on our laurels, and are committed to building our capacity, capability and environment further to drive innovation and inclusive economic growth in Scotland. We cannot do this alone.

Our higher education system needs government commitment to long-term, sustainable investment in research and knowledge exchange to enable our universities to continue to build a dynamic and thriving research community and infrastructure.

With this support we will drive partnerships locally, nationally and internationally, supporting the private, public and third sectors to exploit research that creates economic growth and job opportunities for our communities.

In this way our modern universities will be key contributors to building a fairer, healthier, greener and more prosperous society.

Professor Andrea Nolan is principal and vice-chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University, a member of the MillionPlus group of UK modern universities.