On Thursday 26 January Research to Action – ‘the Global Guide to Research Impact’ – launched its new ‘Cup of tea’ webinar series with an interview between Megan Lloyd-Laney and Saskia Gent of Insights for Impact. The title of the webinar was ‘An introduction to research uptake and the impact landscape’.
If you missed this, you can view the webinar slides and the suggested further research uptake resources on R2A’s Slideshare. Or watch the webinar recording on R2A’s Vimeo and YouTube channel (coming soon).
Megan Lloyd-Laney began by introducing the ‘Cup of tea’ series and its aim to share the experiences of experts on research uptake with a wider audience in a short and accessible webinar held on the last Thursday of every month. Megan described the format as akin to the conversations attendees at a conference would have during a tea break.
Next, Saskia Gent, Director of Insights for Impact and previous head of Research Quality and Impact at the University of Sussex introduced herself and her aims to unpack the different pathways to research impact. She noted that some people have a problem with the word ‘impact’ and that it is a contested word.
2009 was a pivotal year
Saskia went on to give a brief overview of her career path and how she became involved in research uptake. She outlined how a new set of DFID funded development research centres were set up in the early 2000’s and how her role as Policy Officer for the Migration, Globalisation and Poverty Research Centre involved working with wider stakeholders of the research produced, in the UK and beyond.
Saskia highlighted that 2009 was a pivotal year for research uptake, particularly in the UK, with 10% of funding expected to be ring fenced for research uptake activities within the DFID funded research centres. Saskia noted that this was a really useful tool to ensure proper attention was paid to research uptake. Pathways to impact were also introduced by the UK research councils in 2009 and the funding body HEFCE piloted the REF case studies in the same year.
After working for the DFID funded research centre Saskia moved to work with researchers in the University of Sussex’s School of Global Studies. This role involved working with their REF case studies which then led to a secondment working in the central university, where she oversaw the submission of 72 impact case studies from all over the university.
Different expectations of impact across disciplines
Megan asked were there very different expectations of research impact from different funders? Saskia replied, that yes there were different expectations of impact. She explained that pathways to impact are essentially a prediction, a choice of a certain pathway to try and generate impact. She added that the research councils do not always tend to follow up enormously on these exact predictions, except for the mandatory grant reporting and the introduction of ResearchFish as a new reporting tool.
Saskia noted that there are some broad brush good practices about research impact within the pathways for impact guidance, for example, engaging with wider research beneficiaries and engaging early. However, she pointed out that we are finding that the approach might not always produce an efficient outcome. Follow on funding used to be available for research that showed further promise and there is still a need to nurture productive collaborations. Instead of follow on funding there are now impact acceleration accounts awarded as block grants to universities for this type of activity.
What is the definition of research uptake?
Saskia summed up her understanding of research uptake to be about the beneficial effects that research can have in society. She acknowledged that it is extremely hard to predict how this will happen. Generally speaking, she explained that research uptake is about the process of how research will be taken up and used. Impact is about the outcome, whilst research uptake refers to the pathways and relations that lead to it. Or put another way, research uptake is about the building blocks such as communication and engagement that take us closer towards generating research impact (which is often achieved serendipitously).
She pointed to the 2014 REF impact case studies which give around 7,000 examples of the benefit and impact that research can have on society. The subsequent analysis of these case studies show that there are around 3,500 different pathways to impact, so it is hard to generalise about the exact process that should be used to generate impact. However, focusing on the narrative of change is extremely important.
Megan responded with her understanding of research uptake, which she explained can be understood by asking a researcher: what would success look like? Research uptake and success can look different in 2, 4 and 10 years in the future. She went on to point out that examples of research uptake might be less obvious than changes in policy at first glance, for example, an approach to research might be heard and taken up across other researchers or practitioners. Uptake might also be about raising awareness of a body of research or framing research issues differently.
Saskia added that it is important to ask researchers how they envisage that success or change, and tease out what they want to happen. It can be complicated and difficult. The important aspect to investigate and understand is the variety of different levers that can be used to bring about change. She emphasised that we need to invest in understanding how change happens, with one method used widely in development – the Theory of Change – providing a good example.
5 top tips for research uptake
Next, Saskia presented her five top tips for improving research uptake and noted that we do not always have control over all of the factors.
- Plan early and well in a holistic way. Work with people who have ‘change ambitions’. Encourage people to think proactively. Too often research uptake is seen as something that happens at the end of a research project. The questions that policy makers have when research is presented at the end of a project are often important to build into the design and process of the research project itself. Engage early with a wide range of stakeholders.
- Request resources in proposals. The ESRC have gone the furthest in almost mandating funding for research uptake. Pathways to impact must be realistic, it is therefore essential to cost in uptake activity. Use professionals and intermediary organisations if you do not have the relevant expertise.
- Invest in relationships. And build networks of intermediary organisations. Researchers do not need to do everything themselves. Utilise complementary skills sets in colleagues and use partners’ networks to leverage contacts across different disciplines or policy areas.
- Be agile. Horizon scan policy processes. Be ready for opportunities so that you can recognise when the door is open and be ready to walk through it. Develop your elevator pitch and be ready to summarise how you would like change to happen. A good way to think about this is to imagine lighting a match and not letting go of it until you can talk through one action that a key stakeholder should make. Be prepared for the unexpected, like sitting on a table at a wedding with the current Prime Minister …
- Be optimistic. The research uptake process can be extremely challenging but have faith that things can change for the better and that you can find a community to help you move forward.
What about research uptake within the context of complex and inconclusive evidence?
Saskia responded to this question from the audience that a lot of change is underpinned by personal relationships. Her recommendation was to focus on coproduction of research and developing a partnership of equals. She recommended taking a look at the publications by the N8 research project.
Building upon her answer, she raised the question: should we tackle the big questions or the easy questions? Saskia suggested that research should be structured and funded in a way that allows us to tackle the big questions.
Should academic institutions evolve their definition of research productivity?
Megan responded to this question raised by another audience member, by agreeing that the enabling environment is very important to achieving uptake. Saskia highlighted that this enabling environment within academic institutions is changing a little bit, certainly with recent policy changes and funding requirements. She went on to suggest that academics will need to be managed more closely in the future, and also rewarded and recognised for their achievements. An indication of the direction of evolution is that promotions criteria now include this sort of work.
One top resource recommendation
Saskia recommended the Impact Lab run by the Impact Initiative which looks at outputs from the DFID-ESRC Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and tries to look for useful behaviours, publishing learning guides using the lessons gleaned.
Megan wrapped up the interview, drawing the analogy that the end of the webinar was like being called back to the plenary room at the conference after the tea break. She promised that there would be more discussion of the key questions that the session did not have time to address and that the emerging themes would be explored in future webinars. For example, the question about contributions vs attribution will be explored in the M&E webinar scheduled for the last Thursday in May. To carry on the conversation use the hashtag #R2Awebinar on social media or email in with any further questions.
Register for next month’s webinar exploring stakeholder engagement over another cup of tea with an uptake expert on Thursday 23 February at 14:00 GMT.
Find more details and sign up on GoToWebinar.
Blog reposted from Research to Action
After more than a decade working with universities in the UK, Europe, and in the developing world, Saskia Gent launched Insights for Impact to offer consultancy services to institutions, researchers, departments, and research projects, enabling them to access impact expertise, add flexible resource, and address specific issues innovatively.