Our mission: to help researchers and institutions better understand and tackle impact
In recent years, external pressures have made healthy impact mindsets and cultures more difficult to embed than they need to be. That’s why, with support and input from impact experts across the globe, we’ve developed a brand new Impact services platform: to empower institutions and researchers to become more impact-literate and meet impact head-on.
With guidance around writing for impact, institutional healthchecks, tips for finding research collaborators and more, we’re making impact frustrations a thing of the past – at both the institutional level and with the individual researcher.
Impact is the provable benefits of research in the real world. It's not judged by traditional methods – such as citations – simply appraised by factors we can see and feel in wider society. Impact emerges differently across various disciplines, but ultimately it is about connecting academic research to the world around us.
Impact is also driven by other dynamics, including funder requirements, research assessments and, of course, societal shifts and changing environments. While these are clear points of focus, the real significance comes from making impact meaningful to you, your partners and your research. We believe that maximum benefit comes from planning impact – enabling you to create and navigate compelling pathways for your research.
What we don't mean
Impact is often used as a capture-all term to describe the part of research process beyond academia. However, in its truest form, ‘impact’ is the term for the change – not the process itself.
The process is sometimes described as knowledge mobilisation. You might find it helpful to split ‘process’ from ‘effects’. That is:
- Knowledge mobilisation: the process by which our research is connected to the real world. Examples include dissemination, communication, engagement, knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange, commercialisation
- Impact: the measurable change that occurs.
When you’re identifying the impact factors in your own research, it’s key to think of the difference between these.
Why impact in academia is broken
Impact is a difficult and often controversial topic because it’s a response to external governmental policy, and can create conflicting responsibilities, tasks and mindsets among academics.
The priorities of academics are often at odds with those of a commercial enterprise or business, which can cause frustration when it is a funding expectation for researchers to partner with one. This can lead departmentally or institutionally to an unhealthy or unproductive culture around impact, which makes it difficult to get on board with the changes.
Dive into our podcasts, which unpack the issues further:
Mark Taylor and Chris Hewson, from the National Institute for Health Research and the University of York, on the Research Excellence Framework being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect that has had on the higher education landscape.
Author Debbie Haski-Leventhal on the importance of the purpose-driven university, and why institutions have a responsibility to think about their purpose in light of impact.
Everyone means the same thing when they talk about impact
Impact is now an everyday word in the world of research. It’s easy to assume everyone is on the same page about what impact is, but it has multiple definitions across different organisations and is understood differently by different stakeholder groups. We define impact as 'the provable effects of research in the real world'. It’s important to be specific about what you mean by impact, and to check how other stakeholders define the term.
Impact has to be big
Impact is change that happens as a result of your research. This means any change, regardless of the size, timing or location of that change. Real change can happen gradually, and is often a result of incremental, stepwise smaller changes. If we only focus on big, immediate impacts we risk missing the smaller steps that get us there.
Impact has to be positive
Impact itself is a neutral term – it can be positive, negative or a mix of both. Negative impact can be the preventing or stopping something from happening. These impacts can seem less visible or be harder to evidence, but still ultimately benefit society. Researchers also need to be aware of the potential for harmful or unintended impacts to emerge from research. Critical evaluation is key skill for understanding the full potential range of your research impacts.
Impact happens at the end of a project
Impact happens when change occurs – which can be at any point from the start of your research project. Impact is not linear, and the routes to impact can be complex. Impact is not always an immediate outcome of your research, and change decades into the future.
Impact can’t be planned for
Whilst plans can – and will – change, the action of planning helps maximise the potential for research to create impact. Planning for impact includes identifying the kind of change you want your research to achieve, for who and why. Plans help researchers identify what the indicators of these changes might be, and how they can be measured ahead of time. An impact plan acts as a map to help you navigate the changes you want your research to make.
Impact results from applied research
Theoretical research might need to take more steps to achieve impact than applied research, but it can still be part of the chain that leads to eventual change. Think about impact as a series of dominos lined up – all the dominos in the chain to fall to achieve impact. Sometimes your research might be right at the start of that chain making a contribution in the field that leads to a new method, which another researcher uses to create new data, which – inputted into a new model – leads to new policy change. The trick is mapping out the steps to that change.
Impact is something new
The concept of impact has been around as long as research itself. Research has always had an effect beyond the university walls, and many researchers over time have designed their research with benefits for society in mind. What is new is the increased emphasis on planning for and demonstrating the impact of your research.
Why it's not a quick fix
Making impact work requires a whole system change. It’s a huge process that involves universities and other institutions building effective and workable structures for understanding and supporting with impact. Time, and the applied collaborative skills of a wide variety of different partners, all need to be brought to bear.
Specifically, it’s important to be able to understand, appraise and make decisions about how to connect your research to the outside work. This is what we call impact literacy. In simple terms, being impact literate means understanding:
- What changes (impacts) happen, for whom, and how you can demonstrate it
- How you can mobilise your research into action
- Who is needed, with what skills, to make this happen
- Why impact is being pursued (including considerations of ethics, values and purpose). It's vital to understand ‘why’ to ensure plans are based on what matters to those affected.
Here’s our Head of Services, Steve Lodge, on why impact is a top priority for us, and why we’re helping to support researchers.
The value & quality of impact-led research
Good impact is achieved by mapping, connecting and assessing the results of the path from research to effect(s). Impact is not defined by how big it is, when it happens or the route taken to get there. Impact can happen quickly, take a long time, and/or require a series of smaller sequenced changes.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Whether you’re a fundamental scientist or an applied researcher, a graduate student or a non-academic partner, it is important to understand how impact works and where your research fits into the landscape.
What's the end game?
Ultimately, our mission is to help researchers and institutions to mobilise knowledge more effectively, moving towards closing the impact gap.
By that we mean, making research as accessible and engaging as it possibly can be to policy makers, communities, and end-users – and this is in line with our mission to align our work with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
You’re already doing impact
Impact is already a factor in good quality research, and this has always been the case! It follows that if you’re a researcher, it’s more than likely your own work already has impact contained within it.
Rather than thinking of impact as something that has to be pulled together and measured at the end of a project, acknowledge, consider and record the small developments in your project along the way.
Why planning for impact is so important
It is always more beneficial to draw impact into research as early as possible, but it is never too late. Your impact statement will be much stronger if it’s been developed alongside your research.
It’s also important to plan because of collaboration is necessary for impact, and you will need the time and resource to factor in the involvement of other stakeholders.
Impact can only happen if research is used beyond academia, so it is crucial to engage non-academics with your research projects as soon as possible. There is a broad range of activities, skills and processes that stakeholders can be part of, beyond being passive receivers of information about your research project.
Collaborating across the lifecycle of a research project has many benefits:
- Helps to inform the research question and methodology
- Grounds the research in what matters to your stakeholders
- Surfaces and overturns assumptions (for example, that you have the same definitions)
- Identifies the best channels and formats for communicating the outcomes of your research to different audiences
- Identify challenges and barriers to putting your research into practice
- More likely that your research will be adopted and implemented
However, stakeholder engagement can be one of the most challenging parts of research impact. Understanding how to engage stakeholders with your research and building the skills to facilitate stakeholder engagement is an iterative process which takes time, and the difficulties and barriers often mean that engaging stakeholders within research is often left until the end the project, and overlooked in favour of more conventional ways of designing and disseminating research. This makes achieving impact with your research much harder, and potentially impossible.
Here are five questions you can use to start to identify research stakeholders:
- Who is directly involved in your research?
- Who can make decisions about your project?
- Who will be affected by the outcomes?
- Who is interested in your research?
- Who might be opposed to your research?
Impact & funding
Impact is driven by a number of factors including funders’ requirements and research assessment. However, it’s important to focus on making impact meaningful to you, your stakeholders and your research, not just delivering on these higher-level agendas. By taking charge of mapping the impact for your research, you can pursue the most valuable and realistic paths for your research and maximise the benefit your work can have.
Building healthy impact environments
Every institution is different, and impact operates at all levels of an organisation and across multiple job roles. What is key is for institutions to identify meaningful ways to connect research to the real world, and support the knowledge, skills, resources and structures needed to deliver it. Impact is only achievable through teamwork, partnerships and connected action.
The institution plays a vital role in achieving research impact through the support of its researchers. Whilst individual impact literacy is needed to drive research into practice, building institutional impact literacy is essential to ensure there is space, strategy and support to do so.
The Impact services institutional healthcheck is designed to help institutions consider how ‘healthy’ they are in terms of supporting and generating impact and identify how they can improve it. It is for those leading impact, overseeing research delivery or more broadly driving organisational change, helping them identify actionable strategic insights into the institution’s risk and potential opportunities around impact.
Missions, values & ethics
Source: Image extended by Bayley and Phipps from original source: Bayley J and Phipps D. Extending the concept of research impact literacy: levels of literacy, institutional role and ethical considerations [version 2; peer review: 2 approved] Emerald Open Research 2019, 1:14. (https://doi.org/10.35241/emeraldopenres.13140.2)
|Coordination of activities||Cross team awareness|
|Inclusivity||Team activities aligned|
|Competencies||Capabilities||Training & development||Investment|
|Expert advice for impact and legal / IP||Recognition and investment in impact skills|
|Co-production||Equality on/off campus roles||Opportunities||Permeability|
|End user partnerships||Research opportunities
|Commitment||Roles with impact capacity||Resourcing||Strategy|
|Incentives||Implementation plan||Impact and funding|
|Leadership||Systems and workload|
|Learning and development|
|Do staff know impact
and understand roles?
|Clear vision||Drivers and agendas|
|Impact across disciplines|
Supporting a culture of impact – championing impact literacy
We’re working on a service to immerse researchers, impact officers and institutions into impact culture, making it instinctive and, above all, inspiring.
We support individual paths to impact literacy and encourage a bold approach to flow through institutions.
Sign up here to register your interest – we'll be in touch with more information, including when you can sign up to a demonstration.