Looking ahead, our Head of Services, Steve Lodge, discusses why impact must remain a priority for research, steps that should be taken to keep impact on the agenda and how researchers can benefit from our support.

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The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s announcement in January stated that grant applicants would no longer be required to submit a ‘Pathways to Impact’ plan, sending shockwaves throughout the research community. The news was met with mixed reactions, welcomed by those who saw the impact planning section no more than a tick-box exercise, and snubbed by others who felt it could be damaging to the future of the impact agenda, at least in the UK.

In their announcement, the UKRI were quick to underline their enduring commitment to impact, drawing attention to the organisation’s role in helping embed impact in research culture over the past decade. Reinforcing their pledge to support impactful research, they noted at the time that “UK Research and Innovation exists to fund the researchers who generate the knowledge that society needs, and the innovators who can turn this knowledge into public benefit”. Since then, there has been much debate within the community about how and to what extent impact should be kept at the forefront of everyone’s agenda.

A few months on since the UKRI’s statement and it is clear that impact isn’t going away any time soon. The impact agenda is still very much a priority for the research community in the UK and continues to gain momentum around the world. In terms of policy, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 and more loosely the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), remain committed to impact, as do many funders that still require applicants to consider the impact of their work for success. For us as a publisher, our stance hasn’t shifted either – we continue to promote and reward impact and develop tools that will help researchers and institutions plan and carry out research that makes a difference.

Hi Steve, what impact do you think the UKRI’s removal of the Pathways to Impact section will have on the research industry?

Well on a positive note, it does on the surface remove an administrative layer, which in itself is no bad thing. Measures that reduce a burden on researchers and allow them to focus on their research first and foremost should definitely be encouraged. However, I’ve spoken to a number of managers in the research office that feel a bit aggrieved at having one of their key windows of opportunity to sit down with the researcher and encourage them to think about impact, what they are trying to achieve and how they will get there, taken away from them.

Unless pathways to impact are replaced with an appropriate mandate to do this, the fear is that without systems that drive impact, it could pave the way for bias focus on ‘high achievers’ in the traditional sense and ill-considered research project planning. Impact isn’t going away, and focusing overtly on the pathways to impact statement belittles the challenge.

My hope is that it’s removal is part of a system-wide review of how impact is treated as well as assessed. And let’s not forget that there are many other funders who continue to ensure impact is a very important part of the application process.

How important is it to prioritise impact within the research landscape?

It’s vitally important. There should be a responsibility to ensure that research projects, particularly those that require a vast undertaking and significant public and private funding, can outline a pathway to positive, tangible changes they can affect. These benefits should be systemically recognised in terms of their societal importance, beyond the academic accolades associated with disseminating in highly ranked publications.
Impact literacy at the researcher-level is important, but critically, it needs extending to institutions themselves, and questions should be asked as to whether they have the right processes, environment, culture and incentives to allow research impact to thrive.

What steps should be taken over the next five years to ensure impact isn’t overlooked, but is enabled and understood by all stakeholders?

It’s a significant challenge, but the industry needs to carefully examine its reward systems. Impact is far more than a case study, or a highly-cited article. But it’s fair to say in the majority of cases, it’s these outputs that gain the recognition. In mine and many others’ views, attention should be placed on the research and its societal benefit, rather than peer endorsements in an academic echo chamber.

It would be great to see research institutions state their missions clearly, and review whether their ways of working and environment ensure research is well aligned to succeeding in this mission. Many institutions, such as University College London (UCL) and the University of Reading here in the UK, have established dedicated departments that help researchers identify their impact pathways and it would be wonderful to see others follow their lead. Equally, funders have an enormous part to play to make sure that it’s the research projects that can clearly identify these positive changes and that they can secure the budget required to allow society to reap the benefits.

How is Emerald supporting researchers to navigate their own pathways to impact?

For starters we’re talking to them as much as we can. One of the first steps is to understand why some may have challenges in identifying their impact pathways. Emerald are talking very openly about the importance of impact literacy and the clear distinction between ‘impact’ and ‘communication’ – which is a pretty unique position for a publisher! We’ve continued to work with those championing impact literacy to create a service that will help researchers navigate this path effectively, and for institutions to do the same. COVID-19 permitting, we still hope to launch this service before the year is out.

Planning for impact at the start should lead to more focused attention on positive change as a result of well-planned, collaborative research and enable the outputs to become the foundation for some truly tangible outcomes and compelling stories.

We are working with universities and institutions to create a range of Impact Services that will make ‘healthy impact culture’ a daily reality. If you’re looking for help to navigate your way to impact and ultimately achieve better research outcomes for you and your institution, then Impact Services could be for you.

Find out more

Real impact awards

The Real Impact Awards celebrate the commitment to research and research practices that help to create impact and positive change in the real world.

With over 100 entries to the Real Impact Awards in 2019, selecting our finalists wasn’t easy. However, three entries stood out to the judges for their commitment to putting impact at the top of their agenda and clearly demonstrating their journey to making a significant difference to our communities, societies, cities and world at large.

Find out more about the Real Impact Awards

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