What is impact?
At its most simple, we can define impact as benefit. It is surprising how much clarity it brings, when you simply ask yourself “What was the benefit?”. Keep asking yourself who benefits and how, and you will find impact. People regularly ask me where their engagement or ‘pathway to impact’ stops and their impact begins. The answer is that impact starts when you see benefits. If you can’t see any benefits yet, then you need to stop and evaluate what you have done to find out if there are any benefits yet (or if things are going wrong), or you need to keep engaging to generate the change you want to see.
In The Research Impact Handbook, I’ve expanded on the idea of impact as benefit to describe impact as the good that researchers do in the world. I’ve done this for a number of reasons:
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 these. 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 an implicit venue for the “good” or “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 I am concerned in this book 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 conceptualised 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 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 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. However, the need to demonstrate impact tangibly may skew researchers towards particular types of impact that are easier to attribute to the research and evidence. That’s why 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 policy-makers, and practitioners, or has led to improvements in services or business.
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?
For me, the order in which you ask yourself these two questions is crucial. I would argue that 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 on 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 on 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.