What is impact?
Adapted excerpt from the 2nd Edition of The Research Impact Handbook (forthcoming)
In a nutshell
Research impact is the good that researchers can do in the world. It consists of the non-academic benefits that arise, whether directly or indirectly, from research. Knowledge exchange is a precursor to impact, and this happens through learning, when the data and information from research becomes knowledge that people can benefit from or use. There are many factors that can influence the likelihood of research leading to impact, including the context you are working in, who is involved and how, your approach to knowledge exchange and how well you manage power dynamics.
A definition of research impact
There are many different ways of thinking about impact, and this page describes some of the most commonly used approaches and definitions. The word “impact” is problematic for many, given its connotations of (possibly painful) collisions. However, it is quite simple:
Impact is the good that researchers can do in the world.
There is an implicit value judgment in this definition; we are seeking benefits and working for the good of others beyond the academy. This means we need to reflect on whether there may also be unintended negative consequences, and do everything we can to avoid those. It is our responsibility as researchers to anticipate and assess the potential consequences of research and work with stakeholders to design responsible, sustainable and inclusive research.
There is also an implicit venue for those benefits in my definition: they lie beyond the academy. There are of course many forms of academic impact we may be equally interested in (for example bibliometric indicators of impact), but here we are concerned with non-academic impacts.
Impact may be direct or indirect. If someone else is able to use your 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 research, then you can share some of the credit for that impact.
Of course, for this to be “research impact”, the benefits must be clearly linked to your research. This doesn’t mean that every part of your work needs to be used. Things can go wrong when people cherry pick the parts of your work that they like and overlook parts that are uncomfortable for them. However, very often only one of your findings is relevant for a particular group, or someone might be interested in the theory or method behind your work rather than the ultimate findings. It is also perfectly normal to go beyond your own 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 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 research either). It is important to be prepared to “go the extra mile” and help those you are working with in ways that go beyond your own research if you want to maintain trust and avoid the perception that you are only doing this for your own gain. In many cases, the most effective approach is to find other researchers who can help. In this way, you are able to add value to the publics and stakeholders you are working with, whilst providing opportunities for impact to your colleagues.
Finally, impact is often conceptualized as beneficial change, but we may have just as much of an impact if our research 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 illusive.
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 publically about the impact of your 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 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.
As a result, definitions of research impact from institutions charged with assessing impact may include demonstrability. It is not enough just to focus on activities and outputs that promote research impact, such as staging a conference or publishing a report. There must be evidence of research impact, for example, that the report has been used by policymakers, and practitioners, or has led to improvements in services or business. For example, Research Councils UK defines research impact as “the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy” (italics added).
How good is my research impact?
It is worth noting at this point that impact is usually judged against two criteria: significance and reach. First, ask yourself how significant the benefits of your work are. How meaningful, valuable or beneficial is your work to those you are working with? Second, ask yourself how far-reaching your work is. Are there other groups who might benefit in similar ways, or new applications of your work that could bring new benefits to new groups?
The order in which you ask yourself these two questions is crucial. If you do something that is situated in every country of the world across multiple social groups, but no-one really cares, or benefits in any tangible or meaningful way, you don’t actually have an impact. On the other hand, if you save one person’s life as a result of your research, you clearly have a significant impact. Therefore, first ask yourself what you can do that would be significant at whatever scale you feel is achievable to you at this point. It may be one company, your local community or your local hospital, but if you think you could actually achieve something significant at that scale, then focus on that.
Don’t be put off by others who have gone before you and achieved impacts on grand scales. Start small, and once you can see that it works (and only then), ask how you might be able to extend the reach of your impact. At this point, ways of extending your reach are often self-evident, and you will have met people who will want to help you on this journey. Moreover, you have the evidence that it worked for one company, one community or one hospital, which makes it much easier for others to follow in their footsteps.
What types of impact are there?
There are many different types of impact, with some types of impact leading to others. Institutional definitions of impact often list types of impact, but there have been few attempts to categorise these to date. For example, the Higher Education Funding Council for England defines impact as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. More simply, the Australian Engagement and Impact Assessment defines impact as “the contribution that research makes to the economy, society, environment or culture, beyond the contribution to academic research.”
Based on an analysis of impact case studies from around the world (ongoing), it is possible to distinguish between ten types of impact. Categorising impacts in this way is useful, because it gives you a checklist to consider the full range of possible impacts you could seek. Even if you have a narrow focus on one type of impact (say economic impact of a spin-out company), it is often worth looking through the other types of impact that might arise, to consider whether you might also be generating these benefits. For example a company’s new product may replace something that was energy intensive to produce, and so reduces Greenhouse Gas emissions, giving you an environmental impact as well as the original economic impact.
You can look for beneficial changes in:
Understanding and awareness
Health and wellbeing
Other forms of decision-making and behavior change
Capacity or preparedness
The following sub-sections define each of these types of impact and give you examples of the sorts of things you might seek to do to achieve each type of impact.
1. Understanding and awareness impacts
Definition: people understand an issue better than they did before, based on your research.
For example, if you are doing public engagement, this may be a new appreciation for something people had previously overlooked or taken for granted, or you may have raised awareness about an important issue that typically gets limited media coverage. If you are working with stakeholders you may, for example, have done research that uncovers the scale and urgency of a problem needs to be solved, or you may have evidence that a product or policy would have negative unintended consequences if introduced. You may not have the solution to these problems, but the fact that people are now aware of the issue is an impact in itself. It is worth noting here that awareness and understanding impacts often lead (in time) to other types of impact (below), so you may want to wait until these other impacts have occurred before reporting your impacts to funders and assessors, who are likely to be more interested in what happened eventually as a result of this new understanding.
2. Attitudinal impacts
Definition: a change in attitudes, typically of a group of people who share similar views, towards a new attitude that brings them or others benefits.
For example, public engagement might lead to a new appreciation for alternative views and more positive perceptions of people who hold differing views. This would be a benefit if it led to less prejudicial or other negative feelings towards others. An example of this might be a research intervention that led to measurable changes in racist attitudes in a sporting community such as football. Alternatively, you might change attitudes of white male business executives towards female or non-white employees seeking board level positions in corporations. Again, changes in attitudes often lead (in time) to changes in behavior and decisions (e.g. leading to more non-white footballers or company board members), and you may want to design a pathway to impact that seeks attitudinal change on the way to other impacts (below) before reporting the non-academic benefits of your research.
3. Economic impacts
Definition: monetary benefits arising from research, either in terms of money saved, costs avoided or increases in turnover, profit, funding or benefits to groups of people or the environment measured in monetary terms.
For example, public engagement based on your research may lead to a reduction in the number of people visiting their local doctor with a particular complaint, saving the health service, insurance providers or patient’s money. Alternatively, your work might led to a new product or service that has made money for a company (or its shareholders) or saved a company money (increasing its profits). Your research might have demonstrated that a new or existing policy is not achieving its goal and so is wasting money, leading to the withdrawal of that policy (saving money) or its replacement with something that works (providing better value for taxpayer’s money). You may have quantified the economic benefit to society of a new policy based on your work, or estimated the benefits of an intervention based on your work for the natural environment using monetary valuation techniques. Economics also increasingly offers a range of non-monetary valuation methods for assessing impacts from research that cannot easily (or should not) be converted to monetary values.
4. Environmental impacts
Definition: benefits from research to genetic diversity, species or habitat conservation, and ecosystems, including the benefits that humans derive from a healthy environment.
Environmental benefits may be for nature alone (with no tangible benefit for people), or for nature and people. Research that only benefits nature (e.g. saving a species from extinction) is just as valuable as research that also then benefits people as a result of the benefits for nature (e.g. via health benefits from reduced pollution or increased wellbeing from access to green space). Alternatively, research may lead to human behavior changes that benefit nature (e.g. reducing consumption or using less plastic). In this case you ideally want to know whether people’s behaviors changed, and also whether those changes actually had the environmental benefits you hoped for. You might try and evaluate environmental benefits for people in terms of understanding and awareness benefits (above) through education based on your work, or via the services that nature provides to people. Many of these services are tangible and easy to measure, such as the provision of food and health benefits, but many are less tangible and present challenges for measurement, such as cultural or spiritual benefits arising from interaction with nature. There are a growing range of approaches from social sciences and the arts and humanities to assess these sorts of impacts.
5. Health and wellbeing impacts
Definition: research that leads to better outcomes for the health of individuals, social groups or public health, including saving lives and improving people’s quality of life, and wider benefits for the wellbeing of individuals or social groups, including both physical and social aspects such as emotional, psychological, economic wellbeing and measures of life satisfaction.
For example, research from disciplines such as clinical medicine, allied health, public health and biomedical sciences may reduce mortality and morbidity in certain patient groups, via interventions such as new drugs and treatments for diseases and conditions or public health interventions to shift individual behaviours towards more healthy outcomes. The applied nature of such research requires evidence of the effectiveness of interventions (their impact) as part of the research process, for example through clinical trials and meta-analyses of multiple studies in different contexts. There is a wide range of research that may enhance wellbeing in other ways, including for example engaging women affected by domestic violence in reading groups based on research into 19th Century feminist literature as a way of supporting and empowering this group. Alternatively, research on the impact of students on communities around Universities has led to many Universities investing in purpose built student accommodation in different areas, enhancing the wellbeing of their local communities through reductions in things like late night noise and litter.
6. Policy impacts
Definition: the contribution that research makes to new or amended laws, regulations or other policy mechanisms that enable them to meet a defined need or objective that delivers public benefit. Crucial to this definition is the fact that you are assessing the extent that your research made a contribution, recognizing that it is likely to be one of many factors influencing policy. It also goes beyond simply influencing policy, to enabling those policies to deliver public benefits. If the policy intervention would have had the same impact without the elements based on your research, can you really claim to have had impact? Arguing for the significance of your contribution is therefore an essential part of demonstrating that your research achieved policy impacts.
For example, your research may have been one of hundreds of studies in a particular area, but your work provided a missing link or some other crucial piece of evidence that made a policy possible. Alternatively, you may simply have been the person who was able to advise those developing the policy, and so signposted your work alongside other key pieces of evidence and your evidence-based advice became crucial to the development of that policy. This would be research impact as long as your advice was based on research (ideally including your own), and this advice informed and shaped policy in ways that enhanced the policy, enabling it to deliver benefits more effectively. As a result your research may be heard in committees and cited in policy documents, but if it isn’t, you should be able to collect testimonials from members of the policy community explaining your role in the process, and the significance of your research. Attributing policy impacts to individual research projects or researchers is one challenge, but others include the significant time lags that exist between the production of evidence and policy influence, and ideological barriers to the uptake of certain types of evidence at certain times.
7. Other forms of decision-making and behavior change impacts
Definition: whether directly or indirectly (via changes in understanding/awareness and attitudes), research can inform a wide range of individual, group and organizational behaviours and decisions leading to impacts that go beyond the economy, environment, health and wellbeing or policy.
For example, your research may change the attitude of a particular group towards others (for example attitudes towards non-white footballers or board members of companies), and that attitudinal change may then translate into changes in behavior in sports training and selection leading to more non-white footballers, or the promotion of more non-white employees to board positions. The impact of these behavior changes may then lead to other impacts over time, such as improved performance of the football team or company, which you might then claim as an additional economic impact arising from the research. In addition to policy decisions (above), there are many other organisations who seek to base decisions on evidence from research, ranging from charities and non-governmental organisations to farmer co-operatives and arts organisations. Where you can demonstrate that your research has contributed significantly towards decisions that have delivered benefits for these organisations, you have achieved impact.
8. Cultural impacts
Definition: changes in the prevailing values, attitudes, beliefs, discourse and patterns of behavior, whether explicit (e.g. codified in rules or law) or implicit (e.g. rules of thumb or accepted practices) in organisations, social groups or society that deliver benefits to the members of those groups or those they interact with.
For example, research on a classical composer may provide cultural impacts by opening up that composer’s work to new audiences through interpretation (via public lectures, media work or pre-concert talks) and influence how performers interpret, perform and record the composer’s work, leading to critical acclaim and enriching the cultural experience of the music-loving public. Alternatively, research on working class entertainment might lead to changes in attitudes towards historic entertainment venues that had been left to fall into disrepair, leading to them being valued more greatly by members of the public. This might then lead to other forms of impact, for example economic impacts based on restoring historic entertainment venues that bring in visitors and revenue to previously overlooked locations. Evidencing the cultural impacts can be challenging, but methods do exist.
9. Other social impacts
Definition: benefits to specific social groups or society not covered by other types of impact.
For example, your research on micro-grids for solar energy might enable communities living in remote parts of Africa to access electricity, enabling school children to have access to artificial light so they can do homework. Your research on education in collaboration with researchers working on low cost internet-connected devices might lead to the development of self-taught courses that give millions of children access to education that would otherwise have not been possible. Your research on the relationship between Islamic law and international human rights might lead to lead to legislative reform that leads to the the empowerment of groups that had previously been discriminated against. Access to education and other human rights may not represent a cultural change, and may not lead to benefits for health and wellbeing, enhanced livelihoods or other economic measures or the environment. However these other social impacts must also be recognised.
10. Capacity or preparedness
Definition: research that leads to new or enhanced capacity (physical, financial, natural, human resources or social capital and connectivity) that is likely to lead to future benefits, or that makes individuals, groups or organisations more prepared and better able to cope with changes that might otherwise impact negatively on them.
For example, your research might lead to the development of new infrastructure or equipment that will provide benefits to future users. Your evidence may have enabled a charity to gain significant new funding for its future work. Your research may have led to the creation of new habitats that will protect critical infrastructure from future flooding. Key people may have new knowledge and skills that will enable them to generate impacts for their business or adapt to a change in the law. As a result of collaborating in your research project, people may connected to a more diverse group of people or organisations who they now know and trust, and as a result they know who to contact and what capabilities they can deploy to respond faster and more effectively to a natural disaster. Many research funders specifically target these sorts of impacts, but others would view capacity or preparedness as simply a pathway to other impacts that are only realised once that capacity is used. As a result, you may want to wait and see how the new capacity and preparedness that results from your research is used. The problem is that this may take time, and in some cases the eventuality for which you helped people prepare does not come to pass.
How does impact happen?
There is one universal precursor to impact: learning. The research we publish is typically in the form of data and information (useful data), but for someone to benefit or use your work, this data and information need to be transformed into knowledge in someone’s head. This happens through learning: someone somewhere needs to learn about your work. Therefore, if you want your research to have an impact, you need to find new ways of making your work both accessible and understandable to the people who can benefit from or use your work most.
There are many overlapping terms that are often used to describe this process, including: knowledge management, sharing, co-production, transfer, brokerage, transformation, mobilisation, and translation. Each of these terms is used in different disciplinary or sectoral contexts to mean slightly different things. Some imply a one-way flow of knowledge from those who generate it to those who use it, whereas others imply different levels of two-way knowledge exchange and joint production of knowledge between those who need to use knowledge and researchers.
There are five factors that can explain whether or not a pathway to impact is likely to work:
Context and purpose: the impact generation process always starts in a given context, for example, the culture, educational status and interests of a particular public, or the emergence of a new challenge such as a new disease or opportunity such as a new technology. Within this context, researchers and various social groups may wish to achieve specific benefits (your purpose or impact goal), for example, learning about the work of a nationally significant artist, or finding a cure for a disease. As contexts or purposes change over time, you need to adapt your pathway to impact, considering how you may deal differently with each of the factors below. For any given context and purpose, each of the steps required to generate impact will vary significantly
Who initiates and leads on the pathway to impact: researchers, publics and/or stakeholders may initiate and lead the impact generation process. Who initiates and leads the process matters: there is evidence that impacts vary systematically based on the group that has ownership of the pathway to impact. For example, your pathway to impact may be self-organised from the bottom-up, initiated and led by those seeking the benefits. Alternatively, impact may be initiated through more top-down approaches, where plans to achieve benefits are initiated and led by researchers or other external agencies such as Government.
Representation: your engagement with stakeholders and publics is likely to vary from full to partial representation of different groups and their interests. Partial representation may be deliberate (for example as part of a phased approach of engaging increasingly influential or hard-to-reach groups), or due to a lack of time or resources. There is evidence that pathways to impact are significantly affected by who is engaged in the pathway, and inadvertently overlooking important groups can undermine your attempts to achieve impact.
Design: the way you engage with publics and stakeholders may be designed as a communicative (one-way flows of knowledge from researchers to stakeholders and/or publics), consultative (one-way from stakeholders to researchers), deliberative (two-way knowledge flows) or co-productive (joint production of knowledge). Your choice of approach should be adapted to who you are engaging with (point 3 above), who initiated and is leading the process (point 2), and your context and impact goals (point 1).
Power: finally, depending on the design of the process and its facilitation, power dynamics between researchers, publics and stakeholders may be more or less effectively managed, strongly influencing the ultimate achievement of benefits or unintended consequences.
Ultimately, the likelihood of your pathway to impact working depends on each of these five factors. Get these right, and you are highly likely to achieve your impact goals. Get them wrong, and you are far more likely to fail, potentially leading to negative unintended consequences.
The power of clear thinking about impact
Many of us think we already know what impact is, but even a short discussion about impact raises multiple questions and challenges. This often reveals incomplete or muddled thinking, which can be problematic when we need to think on our feet and adapt to changing circumstances in order to keep our impacts on track. Defining impact in a way that is both incredibly simple, and yet nuanced, can clarify your thinking on impact. It isn’t complicated. It is simply the good that you can do in the world. By applying this definition to as many different contexts as possible, you now have a much clearer idea of the specific types of impact you might want to pursue. The examples given of each type of impact are far from exhaustive, but you should now have some concrete ideas of the sorts of things that could be considered research impacts. Finally, by understanding the various factors that influence whether or not you are likely to achieve impact, you can design your pathway to impact in a way that is highly likely to actually work.
Find out more
There are lots of ways you can deepen your understanding and practice of impact:
Explore research impact guides, templates, and examples of good practice on our resources page.
If you are a UK academic, find out how to write a 4* impact case study for REF2021
Listen to the Fast Track Impact podcast
Read our free impact magazine
Take our free online training course
Get your own copy of The Research Impact Handbook (note that only the first edition is currently available - the material on this page comes from the second edition, to be released later in 2018)