Is my project 'research'?

We are often asked whether a certain project can be classed as research, and whether it will count as research income for reporting purposes, such as REF. 

Agencies such as Research England and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) only permit us to class income as research if it conforms to the Frascati definition of research (Frascati Manual 2015). This is the internationally recognised methodology for collecting and using R&D statistics. It defines research as follows:

Research and experimental development (R&D) comprise creative and systematic work undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge - including knowledge of humankind, culture and society - and to devise new applications of available knowledge.

The activity must be novel, creative, uncertain, systematic, transferrable and/or reproducible.

The term R&D covers the following three activities, including formal R&D in R&D units and informal or occasional R&D in other units.

  • Basic research is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundation of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view.
  • Applied research is original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective.
  • Experimental development is systematic work, drawing on knowledge gained from research and practical experience and generating additional knowledge, which is directed to producing new products or processes or to improving existing products or processes.

The Frascati Manual lists situations where certain activities are to be excluded from R&D except when carried out solely or primarily for the purposes of an R&D project. These include:

  • routine testing and analysis of materials, components, products, processes, etc.
  • feasibility studies
  • routine software development
  • general purpose data collection
  • policy-related studies
  • phase IV of clinical trials (unless they result in a further scientific or technological advance)

The later stages of some clinical drug trials may be more akin to routine testing, particularly in cases where the original research has been done by a drug company or other contractor. Examples of non research income include Education, Consultancy, PhD Studentships, and Services Rendered activity.

A useful statement is “Consultancy buys time from someone who already knows the answer whereas Research Contracts buy researcher time to try to find out the answer which is not yet known”.

Who to contact

If you are uncertain whether something may be classed as research income, please speak to contact the help desk on 0114 22 21450 or

Contact the Pricing Team