What sort of research impact strategy is best for your organisation?

An update on a project to collect and analyse research impact strategies

In late summer last year, Fast Track Impact and Insights for Impact began a joint project to conduct a comparative analysis of research impact strategies. We were joined by Regina Hansda, research associate at the Centre for Rural Economy and Institute for Agri-Food Research & Innovation at Newcastle University, and Fran Seballos, research manager in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. 

Our goal is to create a comprehensive typology of impact strategies. We’re doing this by engaging with stakeholders to collect a variety of current examples, generating assessment criteria, and thematically analysing strategies against these criteria. This will lead to guidance on impact strategy development with an accompanying database of publicly-available strategies.

We had originally planned to publish this in early 2021, but the continuing pandemic and associated health and other issues meant that this has been pushed back until later this summer. As we work to finalise the research project, we thought we’d provide an update on progress and analysis to date.

We used two approaches to identify research and impact strategy documents. First, Google searches identified impact strategies using the search terms “impact strategy”, “research and impact strategy”, and “impact plan”, paired with institutional keywords such as “university”, “higher education”, and “research”. Second, we sourced strategic documents using email databases including the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) impact list, JISCMail International Impact Network, and the Fast Track Impact mailing list; the first of these is UK-focused while the other two have international coverage, with a bias towards Australia and New Zealand in the former and the UK in the latter.

All searches and requests were undertaken in English and all the documents found were in English. UK-based organisations predominate. This is partly because of existing networks but perhaps also because the UK government uses impact assessment as part of its funding mechanism, and this has been in place longer in the UK than in the other countries.

By late 2020, we had collected 50 strategy documents from research networks, Centres, Departments, Universities, and research institutes. We shared the publicly available documents with contributors who had requested this via Dropbox; these documents can be accessed HERE. The geographical distribution is shown in Figure 1., below.

Figure 1: Geographical distribution of strategy documents

Two types of strategy emerged from the initial analysis. First, ‘achieving impact’ strategies tended to be associated with organisational units focused on specific challenges or themes; broadly, these can be described as goal-oriented. Achieving impact strategies have specific impact goals aligned with beneficiary needs and often use Theory of Change and implementation plans to deliver strategic objectives. Many of these also align their objectives with UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Second, ‘enabling impact’ strategies tend to be developed by Universities and research institutes and are primarily designed to build capacity and culture across the institution. Enabling impact strategies are more likely to focus on institutional structures, mechanisms, and resourcing for impact. They aim to create opportunities and space for impact and the impact mindset, for example through targeted funding or training. They are often integrated as a just one part of a wider research or university strategy which could include values and a mission or set of goals that included impact. The most significant features characterising these strategies is their focus on institutional structures and mechanisms, impact culture, and investing in people for impact. Both types of strategy also included goals and activities linked to communication, monitoring, and evaluation.

We converted strategic documents into Word files and extracted sections relevant to impact for thematical analysis using the qualitative data analysis program NVivo12. We are now coding texts in each document to understand the emergent themes around research impact-related planning, resource allocation, and expected outcomes and will go on to combine inter-related codes to form broader themes. 

We used the text query function to identify frequently-occurring words and synonyms. As an interim summary, a simple word cloud visualises the frequency of words found in University impact strategies from each of the four countries represented in the sample, as highlighted in Figure 2. This shows that all wrote extensively about the ‘university’, ‘research’ and ‘impact’, but that impact was replaced by knowledge (often as in Knowledge Exchange, or Knowledge Mobilisation) in the case of Canada.

Figure 2: Frequency of words appearing in impact strategies in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. More frequently used words are shown in larger font sizes

There was a secondary focus on ‘develop’, ‘support’, ‘staff’ in New Zealand and the UK, with a secondary emphasis more on ‘community’ and ‘communities’ in Canada, while Australia straddled both. In Australia, New Zealand, and Canada there was particular interest in research outcomes favourably situated within and benefitting indigenous communities, such as the Maori in New Zealand. This reflects an awareness of the importance of engaging with the indigenous communities in these countries that the UK and others could learn from. UK researchers regularly conduct work in the UK and overseas contexts where they need similar levels of awareness of the importance of engaging with local and/or indigenous communities. The relative number of documents from each country means more work needs to be done on the implications of any distinctions.

Next steps are to complete the textual analysis and refine the typologies before publishing later in the year.

If you have any comments on the project so far, or would like to contribute please email saskia@insightsforimpact.co.uk.