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Research Impact: an introduction

Research Impact: an Introduction

Within academia it's usual to start with a clear definition of Research Impact. Within the UK the predominant definition is probably the one proposed by the Research Excellence Framework (in 2014 and 2021):

‘impact is defined 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’ Annexe C, page 90, Guidance on Submissions, REF 2019/01, Jan 2019.

However, as with most topics that are important within academia, there are lots of debates about definitions and Research Impact is no exception. This blogpost ‘The concept of research impact pervades contemporary academic discourse – but what does it actually mean?‘ (or the paper that it is drawn from) is a good example of the definitional debate in this area.

The important points of these definitions

This excellent piece, from Professor Mark Reed, puts much of this debate into context. The most important points to remember from his piece are:

  1. Research impact occurs outside the academy. Therefore, if our research only affects the academy then we haven’t met a central requirement of the definitions. In fact, in the REF definition it is only the location of the impact that matters not the specific nature of the impact as the rest of the definition is purposefully written to be all encompassing.
  2. Research can have negative and positive effects beyond the academy. Whether impact is seen as positive or negative is often driven by the perspective of the observer. For instance, think about research around automation that replaces jobs. Someone who loses their job is not likely to see this as a positive outcome. Researchers therefore have a responsibility to do all they can to maximise the positive views and minimise the negative views of their research impact. This responsibility has fed into UKRI’s Responsible Innovation Guidance and Policies.
  3. There are many types of impact that your research could generate. They all require effort and clear thinking about the mechanisms to achieve them.

Pursue the Impact that matters to you

When we think about Impact and the implications of the definitions, it is obvious that there are likely to be many stakeholders in that impact. Some of those may view the impact negatively and some may view it positively. They are all demonstrating their agency, or their choice, in engaging with the change, effect or benefit that your research may have or blocking them. You too have agency, or choice, which derives from your academic freedom. You choose which research questions you would like to pursue and you should also apply that freedom to choosing the impact that you hope may emerge from that research.

Impact requires effort and dedication and its pursuit is best underpinned by a deep personal motivation to make that impact happen. Think carefully about the many types of impact your research could have (the third point re Mark Reed's definition above) and design your project and its impact activities to enable the impact you care about.

Although there are funding streams that are impact-led and therefore specify the impact that is hoped for, there are many others that are not. Those funding streams may want you to make a case for the impact that may emerge but they are not specifying it. If you find yourself thinking or saying 'What impact do the funders want?', please stop yourself and replace it with 'What impact do I want?'.

The scale of the impact

The word ‘impact’ often brings with it inferences that the scale of the effect, change or benefit must be large. We must not get hung-up on this. Any effect, change or benefit beyond the academy is Research Impact, no matter what its scale really is. In REF2014 and REF2021 the overall quality profiles for impact were:

Impact rating  REF2014 % of

total submission

 REF2021 % of

total submission

Outstanding (4*) 44 50
Very considerable (3*) 39.9 38
Considerable (2*) 13 10.5
Recognised but modest (1*) 2.4 1.5
Unclassified 0.7 0

Achieving impact at the higher scales can take time (a considerable proportion of a career) and lots of effort. However, we should not be put off by this as everyone’s research started with no impact – that is just the nature of the process.

If you have any questions, would like some support, or would like to explore how to develop impact in your area please contact:-