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ICR rated second in UK among all higher education institutions in REF 2021 analysis

Close up of the ICR logo on the a research building

The Institute of Cancer Research, London, has rated second in REF 2021 – the Government’s evaluation of university research quality – among all higher education institutions in the UK that submitted at least two units of assessment.

The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) was also ranked as the leading higher education institution in the UK for its research in biological sciences in the weighted assessment of research quality, impact and environment.

The ICR is a member institution of the University of London as well as a charity. The results of ‘the REF’ show the continued outstanding quality of the ICR’s research – after excellent scores in previous assessments in 2014 and 2008 – and its success at delivering benefits for cancer patients.


Some 97.6 per cent of the ICR’s research was rated as either ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’, the highest proportion in the UK. The ICR also ranked in the top 10 institutions in the UK for its research in clinical medicine, much of which is carried out in partnership with The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust.

The Research Excellence Framework, widely known as the REF, is overseen by Research England. It involves all UK universities making detailed submissions to expert panels. The latest incarnation of the REF is known as REF 2021 because it was initially due to be completed last year, but was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Research submitted by the ICR covered the breadth of our cancer research over the past seven years, since the previous REF in 2014.

The ICR made submissions to two units of assessment. Our submission in biological sciences covered our work in biology and earlier-stage research to make fundamental discoveries about cancer, while our submission in clinical medicine described our translational and clinical work.

Research impact

Some 99 per cent of the ICR’s biological science and 97 per cent of its clinical medicine submissions were ranked as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. It also made submissions describing its impact on the lives of people with cancer and its research environment, both of which gained outstanding scores in REF 2021.

Among higher education institutions that submitted to more than one unit of assessment, the ICR ranked second overall behind only Imperial College London according to the Times Higher Education ranking, which is the most widely referenced in the academic community.

It ranked top in the UK for research in biological sciences in a combined assessment of research quality, impact and environment, with a score of 3.77 out of 4.

Our research programmes

Among many research programmes that have changed or have the potential to change treatment for cancer in recent years, highlights from the ICR’s submission include:

The ICR scored particularly highly in the assessment of its research environment, underlining its vibrant and collaborative research culture. Highlights of the ICR’s submission on research environment included:

  • a strategy for impact that emphases patient benefit
  • new infrastructure including the £20m Centre for Cancer Imaging and the £70m Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery
  • heavy investment in training and a focus on supporting early-career researchers
  • developing research collaborations, networks and partnerships, including through the ICR’s hospital partner The Royal Marsden
  • work to fulfil the ICR’s commitment to an open, equal and collaborative culture, including a major initiative on racial equality.

Professor Kristian Helin, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said:

“The results of REF 2021 are recognition for the amazing research we’ve carried out in recent years and the benefits it is having for people with cancer. Our achievements across both biological sciences and clinical medicine are an acknowledgement of our ‘end-to-end’ research strategy, running from fundamental discovery research and the study of cancer’s complexity and evolution, through to cancer therapeutics and clinical trials to test the effectiveness of new treatments.

“We’re proud that the REF panel has rated a higher proportion of our research either ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ than at any other higher education in the UK, and especially that our research has scored so highly for the impact it is having for society.

“It’s exciting also to gain such a high REF 2021 score for our research environment – driven by our open, collaborative culture, by the hard work of so many people and our excellent research infrastructure. I’m enormously grateful to all our researchers, students and professional services staff at the ICR, to our partners and funders, and to all our supporters, donors and patient advocates for playing such key roles in our success.”

The REF is the UK’s system for the assessment of research quality and impact at its higher education institutions. To mark our outstanding success, we are celebrating some of the ICR research programmes that have been changing the lives of cancer patients.

Read more about REF2021


radiotherapy breast cancer prostate cancer PARP inhibitors drug discovery REF Kristian Helin REF2021 research rankings Research Excellence Framework biological science clinical medicine
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