How to create a positive research impact culture in your group

Updated: May 20, 2020

What is the impact culture in your institution or research group? Every group has a culture, and you may be able to describe some aspects of this (like your research culture), but can you describe your impact culture? In some places the impact culture is, “we don’t do impact in our discipline”. For others it is part of our DNA, and if we fail to achieve impact than we have failed as applied researchers. For others still, impact is something we do for funders or exercises like the Research Excellence Framework.

In this article, I want to give you the diagnostic tools you need to understand the impact culture you are part of. Once you understand your impact culture, you can begin to do something about it, building on your strengths and tackling issues to build a more healthy culture.

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What is an impact culture?

I will start with a definition of research impact culture, and then I’ll explain how you can use this definition as a diagnostic tool to assess the impact culture of your group or institution.

A research impact culture is the shared values, beliefs and norms of an academic community that build trust between researchers and those they seek to benefit, leading to the generation of (significant and far reaching) non-academic impacts based on robust research, which then define the collective identity of that community and distinguish the strengths and foci of one institution from another.

There are three components to my definition:

  • First, cultures are based on shared values, beliefs and norms. While we value difference and diversity, cultures are built from the (often limited number of) things we share in common, or at least that work well together. To find values, beliefs or norms that we share or that work well together, you have to look beneath our differing tastes and preferences to a deeper level, for example the ideas we share about what it means to have integrity as a researcher, or values based on the value of knowledge and the role we should play in society. There is no one set of values, beliefs and norms that needs to underpin a healthy impact culture, but they have a huge influence on how people engage with impact, and some foundations are intrinsically more or less stable and nurturing than others.

  • Second, an impact culture lives and evolves through the communities of people who interact with each other day-to-day around impact. There are many factors that determine the success of a community, but trust is a key factor. There are two ways in which trust and distrust perpetuates and destroys an impact culture.

  • We have to consider how trustworthy we are perceived to be by those beyond the academy we seek to serve. Do we raise false expectations to get funding and then regularly let people down, or can we be available and relied upon to help those we work with in their time of need? Our perceived trustworthiness is important because we know that people are more likely to learn (and hence gain knowledge) from social networks they trust, especially in instances where risks and uncertainty are high. Impact generation relies on the conversion of data and information from research into knowledge before it can benefit someone or be used, and so trust is integral to impact.

  • We have to consider the extent to which we trust each other as researchers around impact. Do we work in a culture where we are told that impact is something we should do because we want to or because it is the right thing to do, and yet get told (whether explicitly or via incentives and performance targets) we have to do it in certain ways that get us funding or grades? If my impact doesn’t make the grade, do the people who claim not to be driven by the metrics, celebrate my small successes or make their disappointment clear? Impact cultures that breed trust are typically underpinned by shared values, beliefs and norms that build and maintain trust, so these two parts of an impact culture are closely linked. They in turn, then in theory lead to the generation of impacts

  • Finally, my definition idealises these impacts as significant, far-reaching and based on robust research. Clearly, there needs to be room for the insignificant and the small-scale, and not all impact has to be based on peer-reviewed research. For me, significance and reach are optional (unless you are being judged on them, in which case you may put a higher priority on these criteria). However, we cannot compromise the rigour of the research upon which we generate impact if we want to have a healthy impact culture. If we do so, then at best we become lobbyists, and at worst we become responsible for decisions that could lead to people’s deaths.

The second half of my definition suggests that you can see collective identities that distinguish one institution or group from another. This is less important for most researchers, but for those charged with developing and curating an institutional identity, it can be useful to identify what is unique to our institution given our history, location and what we are good at, so we can describe our impact culture in ways that distinguishes us from other institutions.

What is YOUR impact culture?

Now we have a definition of impact culture, I want you to use this to interrogate your own impact culture. Think about this at whatever institutional scale is most relevant to you, whether that be your research group, department, faculty or university. Under each of the three components of the definition above, I am going to ask you a series of questions, which should help you understand how you measure up against each component. By the end, when you put these three components together, you should have a pretty good idea of the culture you are in and what you might want to build on or fix.

Questions to ask about shared values, beliefs and norms that underpin impact

Questions to ask include:

  • What are the reasons why you generate impact?

  • What are the values that underpin these reasons for engaging with impact?

  • Why do you think other people in your place typically engage with impact and what are the values that underpin this engagement?

  • When I hear people talking about impact in this place, what values are implicit in what they say?

  • For example, do people talk primarily in pragmatic and instrumental terms about getting impact in the context of grants and impact evaluations, or career progression?

  • Or do I hear people talk about helping others, empowerment, equality, fairness and creativity as they talk about impact, whether or not they use the word “impact” to describe the benefits they are seeking?

  • How often do I hear people talking about things I might describe as impact?

  • Do I hear people talking about the benefits of their work beyond the academy regularly in many contexts, or infrequently, in passing or only in relation to funding and administrative processes?

The values, beliefs and norms of any group are practiced and rehearsed with every group interaction, face-to-face and via email, but they are deeply implicit, and so hard to see unless you are looking. Start looking harder, and you will begin to understand why your group prioritises and behaves the way it does around impact.

Questions to ask about trust around impact

First, we need to ask questions about how trustworthy we and the groups we are in are perceived to be. Although you may feel like you are trustworthy, people may perceive the rest of your group or researchers in general to be untrustworthy, and different groups may perceive your trustworthiness very differently depending on their former experience and worldviews. This, therefore, is a question you need to ask deeply of yourself and your group. Even when you look deeply, you may still miss the answer because it is impossible for you to look at yourself through the eyes of others, and so you may want to ask questions of others to get a more balanced understanding of how you are perceived.

Question you can ask include:

  • Do you return emails, calls and messages on social media from those beyond the academy who engage with your work?

  • Do you make unrealistic promises to non-academic project partners and regularly fail to deliver?

  • Do you tell people you meet at workshops and events that you’ll get in touch, but bin their business cards weeks later?

Second, we need to ask questions about the levels of trust we see within our groups and institutions:

  • To what extent do academics and professional services staff working on impact trust each other not to overburden each other and yet to deliver on time?

  • Do you and your colleagues trust those at the top of your institution who set agendas, priorities and deadlines in relation to impact, that they have your interests and the interests of those you serve at heart?

  • To what extent do you trust this of your funders, Government and others who demand or reward impact?

  • Do researchers from different disciplines who need to work together to generate impact trust each other as equals or do some feel relegated primarily to working on engagement and impact rather than the core research questions and outputs?

Questions about the nature of impacts that are generated

Question to ask include:

  • Is there a lot of impact, but more limited research, and in particular a lack of robust research to underpin impacts?

  • Is there a lot of robust (and academically significant and original) research, but limited evidence of impact from the work arising from the group?

  • Do you regularly see significant and far-reaching impacts emerging from the group’s research?

  • Do you also see smaller, less significant benefits being prioritised and celebrated (this is more likely to reveal something about values, beliefs and norms though)?

The answers to these questions will vary widely across different types of universities and departments. Some will have head-hunted experts from industry, policy or practice, who are taking their students onto the cutting edge of current practice, without being research active. They are still continuing to generate valuable impact but typically based on other people’s research or on their practice and experience. If this is a robust basis for the impact, then this is good and should be celebrated. However, in systems where impact is only valued when it arises from research conducted by the group, there is a danger that healthy impact cultures can become squashed by the systems they occur in. If the evidential basis for the impact is shaky however, even if the flawed research was done by you or your group, there is a problem. An impact culture that regularly produces weak, misleading or flawed research, and then pursues impacts uncritically on this basis is not a healthy impact culture. Developing a health research culture must become a priority in such groups before it is possible to consider developing a health impact culture.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are many groups and institutions that are doing world-class research, and despite its applicability to real-world contexts, rarely leads to impact. A culture that values outputs significantly more than impacts and perpetuates this imbalance is just as unhealthy as a culture that generates impact without the necessary underpinning research.

What can you do about it?

When you put all three components together, you have is a characterisation of your impact culture. If you are happy with this, then you can identify the strengths you can build on to deepen and broaden your already healthy impact culture:

  • What aspects of your impact culture should you celebrate and replicate, and what can you do to be part of an impact culture that becomes even more like that, and makes the shared values, beliefs and norms underpinning those successes even more explicit?

  • What can you do to further build trust and community around impact, bringing others researchers into your impact culture, and consolidating trust in your group and in research beyond the academy?

If you are not happy with the characterisation that has emerged from your analysis of your impact culture, then you need to ask what you can do to change it:

  • There may be very little that you can do as an individual, but can you ask these questions at higher levels with people who might have the power to do something?

  • Can I start conversations with others in my group about impact, bringing it into research group meetings regularly (without using the word “impact”)?

  • Can I start to discuss how we perceive and engage with impact more explicitly with my group or institution, and consider what we might do to improve our impact culture?

How we as individuals relate to and engage with impact influences others and becomes part of a wider conversation that perpetuates or changes culture at different levels. We each have the ability to diagnose strengths and problems with the impact cultures we are in. We each have the ability to ask questions of ourselves, our colleagues and our institutions. Together, we have the ability to find our own basis as a group for pursuing impact, building trust and delivering benefits that people care about.

Two different approaches to building impact cultures

Once we know the issues we are tackling and the kind of culture we want to create around impact, we have a range of motivational levers at our disposal to affect change. Depending on our seniority, we may have more or less levers available to us. However, the more levers we have available, the more careful we must be in pulling them. Those with greatest power tend to have a range of extrinsic motivational levers available, that are easy to pull, and can in theory affect change rapidly and at scale. I can incentivise staff by integrating impact into annual reviews or promotion criteria, or offer funding and other rewards for impact-related activity. Although easy to pull, extrinsic motivational levers only work partially. Some of the time for some people, they deliver what you want, and you now have well motivated and rewarded staff pursuing impact. At other times, for other people, these levers produce unintended negative consequences, as staff chase career progression, funding and prestige at the expense of the people they were meant to be helping. I am not saying that we shouldn’t reward people for impact or create incentives. If we did none of these things, then we would inadvertently be sending a message that impact is not valued by our group or institution. However, if that is our sole focus, then we have to accept that we may inadvertently create a culture that encourages game-playing around impact to secure rewards.

The alternative is to focus first on the intrinsic motivational levers. These are harder to identify and use, depending as they do on empathy. They are less likely to work at scale. But when done properly, these are the kinds of things that sustain deep motivation and engagement, and build healthy impact cultures over the long-term. Some team members may have an intrinsic motivation to make a difference. That’s easy – we can key into that, enable people to achieve their aspirations, equip, inspire, skill up, and give these people the time and resources they need. But what about team members who are more motivated by creativity or curiosity than they are by impact? If I understand what fundamentally motivates these colleagues, then I can identify opportunities that will pique their curiosity or engage them more creatively. For example, asking a curiosity driven researcher to attend (not speak at) a policy seminar linked to their research interests to report back to the group, may stimulate new thoughts and connections that start them on a journey towards further engagement, even if only with researchers from other disciplines to start with. Giving another researcher an opportunity to give a public lecture or work with an artist in residence as part of a science festival may engage with their intrinsic creative drive, motivating them to engage more with impact in future. If such opportunities are targeted towards opinion leaders, then it may be possible to facilitate culture change at scale, but this approach is not as fast or scalable as the extrinsic levers.

Opening channels of empathy and adaptively identifying opportunities takes time and emotional energy. However, if we are not prepared to invest some of this emotional energy alongside the quick wins, then we are unlikely to succeed in changing our impact culture. Culture change takes time, commitment and deliberate effort.

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About the author

Mark is a recognized international expert in research impact with >150 publications that have been cited over 14,000 times. He holds a Research England and N8 funded Chair in Socio-Technical Innovation at Newcastle University, and has won awards for the impact of his research. His work has been funded by ESRC, STFC, NERC, AHRC and BBSRC, and he regularly collaborates and publishes with scholars ranging from the arts and humanities to physical sciences. He has reviewed research and sat on funding panels for the UK Research Councils (including MRC, BBSRC, ESRC, NERC), EU Horizon 2020 and many national and international research funders. He has been commissioned to write reports and talk to international policy conferences by the United Nations, has acted as a science advisor to the BBC, and is research lead for an international charity. ​

Mark regularly advises research funders, helping write funding calls, evaluating the impact of funding programmes and training their staff (his interdisciplinary approach to impact has been featured by the UKRI, the largest UK research funder, as an example of good practice). He also regularly advises on impact to policy makers (e.g. evaluating the impact of research funded by Scottish Government and Forest Research), research projects (e.g. via the advisory panel for the EU Horizon 2020 SciShops project) and agencies (e.g. Australian Research Data Common).

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