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Section 2: What is impact?

This section covers:

  1. Impact vs engagement

  2. Impact’s component parts

  3. Significance vs reach – how impact is measured



  • Impact can be defined simply as the benefits to society that can be shown to arise from research.

  • Engagement is whatever is done to help generate those benefits, for example via the media or through engaging directly with relevant organisations such as NGOs, business, industry or government. This is sometimes referred to as the “pathway to impact” – particularly on research grant application forms (up until this year).

  • Expressed as “benefit to society”, impact should benefit those beyond academia – the world at large. It may be direct or indirect – others may use your research to create impact, which your institution can share the credit for. It may be immediate or long term, near or far, affecting only one person or million. It may be conceived of research that drives beneficial change, but equally it could be research that prevents or lessens damaging or harmful events.

  • Not all impact is positive – there may be unintended consequences, or benefits to one group may harm another. It is important to consider potential tradeoffs of media engagement.

  • Crucially, for this to be “research impact” it must be clearly linked to the research from your institution, and there must be an argument from evidence that shows a causal link between the research, your engagement, and the ultimate impact and benefit.

  • This is not always easy, and there are concerns that the perceived challenges of evidencing impact from media engagement may dissuade some from engaging with their press office. So it is essential that you learn how to provide evidence of significant benefits (in terms of REF) of working with the media.

  • Impact is usually judged against two criteria, significance and reach. 

    • Significance refers to the degree of meaningful value or benefit from the impact

    • Reach refers to the extent of those benefits, how far-reaching they have been.

  • The first is more important than the second: reach without significance (many heard about it, no one cared) is not impact, while significance with even only a little reach (one person’s life changed for the better) can show significant impact.

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