Section 2: Topic 2

Impact - the component parts

Let’s break down the idea of impact as “the good researchers do in the world” into its component parts:

  • There is an implicit value judgment in this definition; you are seeking benefits and working for the good of others beyond the academy. This means you need to reflect on whether there may also be unintended negative consequences, and do everything you can to avoid them. It is our responsibility to anticipate and assess the potential consequences of research and work with stakeholders to design responsible, sustainable and inclusive research (for more information, see resources on ‘responsible research and innovation’ under ‘further reading’).  

  • There is an implicit venue for those benefits in my definition: they lie beyond the academy. There are, of course, many forms of academic impact you may be equally interested in (for example, bibliometric indicators of impact), but this toolkit is concerned with non-academic impacts. 

  • Impact Impact may be direct or indirect. If someone else is able to use your institution’s non-applied research (say a new mathematical algorithm or theory) to derive significant benefits (say a piece of software that saves lives), and that benefit would not have been possible without your institution’s research, then your institution can share some of the credit for that impact with the institution that actually generated the impact. 

  • Of course, for this to be ‘research impact’ the benefits must be clearly linked to research from your institution. This is covered under Evidencing impacts from media engagement, where your task is to build evidence-based arguments that show causal links between research findings and benefits to those who engaged with your media. However, it is perfectly normal to go beyond your own institution’s research to draw on other evidence to help the people you are working with, or just get involved in some other way that has nothing to do with research but that helps make a difference. If you are drawing on other people’s research, that’s still research impact (but you won’t be able to claim this as impact from your institution’s research). If you are doing something else to help that is not related to research, then that’s still impact, but it isn’t research impact (and you won’t be able to claim that as impact from your institution either). 

  • Finally, impact is often conceptualised as beneficial change, but you may have just as much of an impact if research from your institution prevents a damaging or harmful change from occurring. Impacts can be immediate or long-term, in our back yard or in outer space, transforming one person’s life or benefiting millions, tangible or elusive. Defined broadly, impact is rich and varied, and has value whether or not you are able to ‘prove’ it to others. However, if you want to robustly claim and talk publicly about the impact of your institution’s research, the impacts will need to be demonstrable. 

  • There are two ways in which you will need to demonstrate impact: you will need to provide evidence that you achieved impact (and ideally that this was significant and far-reaching); and you will need to provide evidence that your institution’s research contributed toward achieving those impacts. The key word here is ‘contribution’. It is rare that a researcher is able to claim all the credit for an impact linked to their work. There are almost always other lines of evidence (or argument) that have contributed toward the eventual impact. The need to demonstrate impact tangibly may skew researchers towards particular types of impact that are easier to attribute to the research and evidence. There are concerns that the perceived challenges of evidencing impact from media engagement may be dissuading some from engaging with their press office, so it is essential that you learn how to provide evidence of significant benefits, in addition to reach – see Evidencing impacts from media engagement.

 

For these reasons, definitions of research impact from institutions charged with assessing impact tend to include “demonstrability”[1]. It is not enough just to focus on activities and outputs that promote research impact, such as staging a conference, publishing a report or making it onto the front page of newspapers around the world. There must be evidence of research impact, for example, that the media coverage influenced public opinion or policy, or was taken up by a business to build a new product or service. 

 

[1] Research Councils UK defines research impact as “the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy” (italics added)