What types of impact are there?
There are many different types of impact, with some types 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 my own analysis of impact case studies from around the world, I distinguish between ten types of impact. Categorising impacts in this way is useful, because it gives you a checklist for considering 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.
Table 1 shows you the types of impact you can look for. The following subsections 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.
Table 1: Research impact typology
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 which 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 eventually happened 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 prejudice 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 behaviour 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 have led to a reduction in the number of people visiting their local doctor with a particular complaint, saving the health service, insurance providers or patients money. Alternatively, your work might have 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 taxpayers’ 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 well-being from access to green space). Alternatively, research may lead to human behaviour changes that benefit nature (e.g. reducing consumption or using less plastic). In this case, you ideally want to know whether people’s behaviours 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 is a growing range of approaches from social sciences and the arts and humanities to assess these sorts of impacts.
5. Health and well-being 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 well-being of individuals or social groups, including both physical and social aspects such as emotional, psychological, economic well-being 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 well-being 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 institutions investing in purpose-built student accommodation in different areas, enhancing the well-being 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 to which your research made a contribution, recognising 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. You may have 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 have been heard in committees and cited in policy documents, but if it wasn’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. See I want to influence policy for more resources on working with policy-makers.
7. Other forms of decision-making and behaviour change impacts
Definition: whether directly or indirectly (via changes in understanding/awareness and attitudes), research can inform a wide range of individual, group and organisational behaviours and decisions, leading to impacts that go beyond the economy, environment, health and well-being or policy.
For example, your research may change the attitude of a particular group towards others (e.g. attitudes towards non-white footballers or board members of companies), and that attitudinal change may then translate into changes in behaviour 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 behaviour 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 behaviour, 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 not have been possible. Your research on the relationship between Islamic law and international human rights might lead to legislative reform that leads in turn to 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 well-being, 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 be 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.
In some countries, pedagogical impacts are also included as part of research impact. These can be important and far-reaching, but to avoid confusion between benefits for the academy and non-academic impacts, I have not included them in this typology.