Since March 2020, UKRI and its Research Councils no longer require Pathways to Impact and Impact Summaries in research proposals. While the importance and focus of impact may differ from call to call, there are a number of key principles and techniques that can help you integrate impact effectively into your case for support.
Adapt the length and focus of your text on impact to the call specification
We are told to refer to individual call guidance for details of the impacts we should integrate. As a result, the extent to which impact features in assessment criteria varies significantly. Impact is prominent in the assessment criteria for some calls (e.g. the recent COVID-19 calls and Global Challenges Research Fund), while it is entirely missing from the assessment criteria of other calls (e.g. NERC’s Pushing the Frontiers call). In calls where impact is prominent in the scope and/or assessment criteria, the emphasis can differ significantly, for example four out of five impact criteria in a recent MRC/AHRC/ESRC call focused on engagement (knowledge exchange) rather than impact, and there was a strong focus on international and policy impacts in the scope of a recent AHRC call.
As a rule of thumb, the space and detail in your Case for Support should be roughly proportional to each of the assessment criteria. If you only have a couple of sentences on a key assessment criterion, or spend too long discussing something that’s not in the assessment criteria, you give assessors an excuse to downgrade your proposal. Therefore, for calls in which impact does not feature strongly (or at all) in the assessment criteria, it may not be strategic to devote too much space to impact, especially if this comes at the expense of material that is more relevant to the published criteria. On the other hand, for calls that feature impact strongly in the scope and assessment criteria, it will be important to devote significant space to impact, including an impact problem statement, impact goals, beneficiaries, pathways to impact and a monitoring and evaluation plan. Of course, that’s a problem now, as you have significantly less space for impact. I’ll tell you the hack I’m using to give myself an extra page for impact in the last section of the guide. But first we need to pare back our impact to the absolute essentials.
Key ingredients you need in the mix
Before considering the different ways you might want to integrate impact into a case for support (which I’ll do in the next section), it is important to know the key elements you need to integrate. The best cases for support integrate impact with research, rather than just tacking on the impact at the end. Therefore, in this list, I’ve explained what elements of impact, and where you need to integrate them:
1. Integrate research and impact problem statements and/or beneficiaries in the introduction to your case for support (with a summary of this to introduce your objectives and summary sections in Je-S).For a less impact-focussed call, you might want to focus first on the research before thinking about who might benefit from the work. For the research problem statement, identify and evidence the existence of a research challenge or opportunity, and ask yourself what is original or significant about addressing this challenge or opportunity for your discipline (or another discipline). For the impact problem statement, ask yourself who would benefit from that research, and ask yourself why that would matter to them (the significance), and how widely felt those benefits might be (the reach). Alternatively, for a proposal to an impact-focussed call, you might want to start by developing your impact problem statement, before identifying relevant research questions. In this case, identify a challenge or opportunity in the world (linked to the call text), and groups who would benefit if you could address that challenge or opportunity. Work with these groups to explore and further articulate the challenge or opportunity based on their experience, and identify lists of linked research questions, before choosing the questions that are most academically significant and original, linked to the aims of the call. To find out how to identify stakeholders linked to a broad issue or challenge in a call for proposals, see my stakeholder analysis guide.
2. Integrate research and impact goals into your objectives section. Adjust the proportion of research to impact goals based on the importance of impact in the assessment criteria for the call, and consider the level of integration you want between research and impact goals. At minimum, you might have a labelled list of research objectives/questions, followed by a separate labelled list of impact goals. However, you may want to integrate research and impact goals in a single list, if this provides a more logical or coherent ordering of goals (in this case, consider labelling the entire list clearly as being both research and impact goals so reviewers can’t miss the inclusion of both). In some cases, you may want to include some goals that are part research and part impact. In all cases, be as specific as possible in your articulation of both research and impact goals. If you are struggling to come up with specific and credible impact goals, identify a few key non-academic organisations or individuals and discuss your proposal with them before putting pen to paper.
3. Integrate pathways that lead to the delivery/monitoring of impacts into your work plan, alongside research methods that lead to research outputs. Make sure the impacts and research outputs clearly map onto your impact and research goals and academic/non-academic beneficiaries you identified in your problem statement (point 1) and objectives section (point 2). For your impact goals to be credible, you need to have clear pathways to impact. This could be a single activity (like a public engagement event), but it is more likely to be a string of linked activities (e.g. a commercialisation pipeline or a series of different events and activities to engage policy-makers in a process to co-develop a policy mechanism). Make sure you have at least one activity that will work for each of the key non-academic beneficiaries you identified in your problem statement (point 1). Clearly link these activities to your research, showing how specific findings might underpin specific activities leading to particular impact goals, even if some of these are hypothetical until you know the results of the research (in this case, make it clear that these are indicative pathways and impacts). Consider using the Fast Track Impact Planning Template to help you create the relevant links between your research, impact goals, beneficiaries, activities and impact monitoring and evaluation. To be inspired by examples of impact activities from previous proposals, see my Pathway to Impact Best Practice Library.
Different approaches to integration (with worked examples)
There is no single right approach to integration, but here are a few examples of things you might want to try:
Save yourself a page for impact in your Case for Support by cross-referencing to the Objectives and Academic Beneficiaries sections in Je-S. For impact-focussed calls for proposals, the loss of the Pathway to Impact and Impact Summary creates a significant space challenge. There was barely enough room to describe your research in the Case for Support before, but now you also have to squeeze in your impact to this section. In this example proposal, you can see how the overall aims have been re-iterated, but space has been saved by cross-referencing to the Objectives section in Je-S instead of re-iterating them again in the Case for Support, as is often done. Similarly, the “research excellence and innovation” section (one of the key assessment criteria in the call) has been significantly shortened by cross-referencing to the Academic Beneficiaries section in Je-S (sorry I didn’t include that section in the example as it was already getting very long).
Use tables, headings and formatting to show how research and impact goals deliver tangible research outputs and impacts. In this example proposal, two tables and bold paragraph headings are used to show interconnections between the research and impact goals, the academic and non-academic beneficiaries of those goals, the research methods and pathways to impact, and the ultimate research outputs and impacts. A reviewer is able to quickly and easily see how each research and impact goal is achieved, and ambitious goals follow through to specific, tangible and (hence) credible research outputs and measurable impacts.
Use diagrams and structural devices to show connections between research and impact. In this example proposal, the research and impact appears less integrated at first glance, as there are separate lists of policy impact work packages and research methods work packages. However, the “vision and approach” section explains how research methods will be developed and tested in case studies within each policy domain, and this is accompanied by a diagram that explains visually how the two sets of work packages link to each other. Further integration is provided by a “knowledge hub” which provides capacity building activities. Both the research and impact work packages include “quick wins” in the first year of the proposal (requested in the call for proposals), which form the basis for impacts later in the life of the Centre.
The example proposals I have provided in this guide were led by me and have been significantly altered to retain the confidentiality of participants, including changes of names, countries and habitats, so apologies if some of the content doesn’t seem to make sense as a result. They represent just two approaches to integrating impact into a case for support, and should not be used as templates. However, I hope they provide inspiration and some clarity around how you might tackle this challenge yourself.