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What is good practice engagement and impact?

Updated: May 10


REF2029 sees the re-introduction of an “impact narrative” worth at least 5% of each Unit of Assessment’s overall score, to assess “recognise and reward approaches to maximising the impact of research” (REF2029 Initial Decisions). In a subsequent webinar hosted by Fast Track Impact (which I summarised in this blog), Research England explained that they planned to assess the “rigour of engagement” by assessing the extent to which good practice was followed in the generation of impact, citing NCCPE’s ten principles of high quality engagement. In their Frequently Asked Questions has subsequently clarified that this might include the ethics of engagement and the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) of engagement processes.


Based on what we’ve learned so far, it is reasonable to expect that the engagement and impact narrative might include:

  • Information about a Unit’s wider engagement and impact beyond its case studies, perhaps focussing strategically on areas of work under-represented in the case studies, or the breadth of engagement and impact, including with marginalised and vulnerable groups; and

  • Evidence that engagement and impact activities followed best practice, including, for example: the Unit’s engagement and impact strategy; training and resourcing; ethics procedures; approaches to monitoring, evaluation, learning and accountability; approaches to EDI in engagement and the distribution of impacts; and given the focus of REF2029 on research culture, it would be reasonable to assume panels would be interested in evidence that there is a healthy culture around engagement and impact.

The NCCPE guidance is a great starting place and in addition to their principles, they also have a tutorial on high quality engagement, a high-quality engagement template and an attributes framework for public engagement. However, NCCPE’s focus is on engagement rather than impact, and they focus broadly on all types of engagement, not just engagement linked to research, which is the focus for engagement in REF2029. As a result, there are a number of gaps in their guidance around:

  • The rigour and openness of research underpinning engagement and impact;

  • Skills, knowledge exchange and support for researchers who want to engage for impact; and

  • Actions that can be taken by institutions (in addition to researchers) to enable best practice engagement and impact.

In addition to the NCCPE’s excellent guidance, when I’ve been training on REF2029, I’ve been drawing on my impact culture book and paper and paper on EDI considerations in impact. Integrating insights from each of these sources, I’ve identified nine good practice principles for engagement and impact.

Practise

Guidance

1. Understand your purpose and pursue impacts you find intrinsically motivating, rather than allowing extrinsic incentives to drive your engagement

Institutions need to recognise, value and reward engagement and impact, but should avoid using these rewards as incentives to avoid game-playing behaviours. Instead, consider ways you can draw researchers to impact and enable them to engage on their own terms, for example via peer-to-peer learning opportunities with engaged researchers, impact training and coaching programmes. 

 

Researchers need to clarify their purpose, to understand if and how engagement and impact might express important identities and values, and contribute to the meaning they derive from work. This may be done through training or coaching, empowering researchers to engage in ways they feel comfortable, and avoiding or making transparent any conflicts of interest (arising from rewards for impact).

2. Understand your context, so you can engage with empathy, inclusivity and sensitivity

Institutions need to extend EDI training to engagement and impact, giving researchers the capacity to: i) better understand the social, cultural, geopolitical and other relevant contexts they are working in; ii) systematically identify and better understand those who may be interested, influential or impacted by research; and iii) adapt engagement processes to the needs and capabilities of these groups, managing power dynamics, recognising the legitimacy of multiple perspectives, and giving voice to these groups to ensure empowered and equitable representation in engagement and impact processes (and where relevant the research itself). 

 

Researchers need to build their capacity to understand the wider contexts in which they work, learning about the diversity of groups who are interested, influential or likely to be impacted by their work, for example using an interest-influence-impact (3i) analysis. Drawing on this analysis, researchers should adapt to the needs of those they engage with, to ensure engagement and impact is equitable, inclusive and empathic, respecting the different needs and perspectives of multiple groups.

3. Where relevant, co-design your engagement and impact

Institutions should help researchers identify and connect with those who might benefit from their work as early as possible, where possible co-designing engagement activities that will generate impacts of value to these groups, for example using a 3i analysis to identify relevant groups who can help design pathways to impact using logic models or a Theory of Change. Institutions may co-produce events and other initiatives with non-academic partners, build long-term partnerships or create boundary organisations such as policy units and enterprise hubs, which are designed to sit between the University and a particular sector or set of networks to stimulate productive interactions.

 

Researchers need to identify and connect with those who might benefit from their work as early as possible and throughout the research cycle, drawing on relevant tools and institutional support to co-design their engagement and impact (and in some cases the research itself), so that it delivers benefits that are relevant to changing needs and contexts Recognise that co-design may not be always be feasible or appropriate, depending on the type of research and its purpose and context .

4. Draw on robust and open evidence

Institutions should recognise and reward evidence synthesis and provide the training and resources necessary to make findings freely accessible, and where appropriate, make the data underpinning those findings open access too (following “situated openness” guidance that protects researchers in less research-intensive institutions).

 

Researchers should avoid making recommendations for policy or practice based on single studies, wherever possible synthesising evidence systematically or using expert judgement to review multiple studies and provide a more robust basis for action.

5. Monitor, evaluate, learn and be accountable

Institutions should put systems in place to help researchers quickly and easily keep track of their engagements and impacts. They should provide training and support for the evaluation of impacts, and set up systems to ensure lessons are learned across the institution when mistakes are made or negative unintended consequences occur. They should also establish systems and fora where researchers can exchange knowledge and experience, for example via mentoring, workshops or case studies. They should support researchers to be accountable to those they sought to benefit, in addition to their funders.

 

Researchers should find ways to quickly and easily track their engagement and impact as individuals and with their teams within and beyond their institution. They should evaluate their impact as early as it is feasible to do so, to identify lessons that could enhance their engagement and increase their likelihood of impact. Researchers should be accountable to those they sought to benefit, sharing insights from evaluations and co-producing lessons for future engagement and impact.

6. Build your skills and confidence, and support each other in your engagement and impact

Institutions should invest in training, mentoring and coaching to build the skills and confidence researchers need for engagement and impact. There needs to be a strong ethical foundation to such provision, drawing from across these principles, based on deep engagement with researchers’ motives and purpose. This should include methods for identifying and managing the risks of engagement and impact, and guidance around when and how to engage with ethics committees. Consider how to create a nurturing, compassionate culture in which colleagues feel supported as they engage and generate impact, for example via coaching, compassion training or “learning from failure” seminars. Create fora in which researchers can share experience and help each other in their engagement and impact. Accountability mechanisms similar to those that ensure PhD supervisors have received training should be put in place to ensure all those engaging for impact have received basic training that includes ethics guidance.

 

Researchers should engage with and support others who are doing engagement and impact work, to contribute towards a supportive and nurturing culture in their teams and institutions, engaging as they have time in training, mentoring and coaching opportunities. Researchers should be responsible for ensuring they have done basic impact training including the ethics of engagement and impact, and be accountable to their institution.

7. Consider and manage the ethics and risks of engagement and impact

Institutions should consider expanding the remit of research ethics committees to consider engagement and impact under specific circumstances e.g., where monitoring and evaluation data may be integrated into future publications, or when engaging with vulnerable groups or when generating impact in controversial contexts, even when the research itself does not involve humans. All researchers doing engagement and impact work should receive training in ethics and there should be accountability mechanisms to ensure this is done. Guidance and training should also be provided to ethics committees to help them assess engagement and impact work effectively.

 

Researchers should take every measure possible to ensure that their engagement and impact does no harm, engaging with ethics training and following relevant guidance. Researchers should be responsible and accountable to their institution for identifying high risk engagements and impacts, and submitting these to ethics committees for feedback. They should assess risks and identify mitigations prior to starting, where possible with input from potential beneficiaries and other relevant parties.

8. Strategically plan and resource your engagement and impact

Institutions need to recognise the time, professional support and funding needed for good practice engagement and impact. They should support researchers to plan their engagement and impact as early as possible to ensure this work is properly resourced, signposting and supporting them to access external and internal resources. Consider developing an impact strategy, including an institution-wide “enabling” strategy and unit-level “achieving impact strategies.

 

Researchers should plan their engagement and impact, identifying resourcing needs as early as possible, so they can follow best practice, for example using a logic model or Theory of Change as part of the proposal development process, or at the start of funded projects. Researchers need to ensure adequate resources are in place for engagement and impact, for example by building resources for impact into external funding applications, planning ahead with press office and communications teams, recruiting staff with the relevant skills or ensuring they have adequate training.

9. Understand and manage power dynamics and your own positionality

Institutions should ensure professional facilitation is available to support work with vulnerable groups or in controversial settings, for example by providing training for researchers or funding for professional facilitation (this may even be considered as a condition for ethics approval). Institutions should build on curriculum decolonisation programmes to decolonise research, engagement and impact via training to understand unconscious biases, privilege and positionality, enabling researchers to value multiple forms and sources of knowledge in their engagement and impact work, and give voice to others with less influence.

 

Researchers should recognise the value of professional facilitation when engaging with vulnerable groups or in controversial settings, prioritising facilitation training where necessary and hiring professionals with experience of the relevant context, where possible. Researchers and/or facilitators should analyse and explicitly manage power dynamics, especially when facilitating interactions between more and less powerful groups. Where possible, this should extend to considering deeper, less visible, power structures that facilitate or constrain change, and their own biases, assumptions and positionality in the engagement process.


I’d love to hear what you think of them: are they robust or unrealistic; are there important principles missing; do they work across the full range disciplines submitting to REF2029? If you have feedback, I’m collecting responses here, and will update this page as I refine the principles in response to this feedback.


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