Impact is the term used to describe the beneficial effects that research can bring to society in all its forms, beyond the academic world. Research organisations are increasingly paying attention to how they can support work in this area.

In the UK, the pivotal year was 2009, when the Research Councils (RCUK) introduced “pathways to impact”, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) consulted on the introduction of impact into the periodic Research Evaluation Framework (REF). Since then, universities have been developing their approaches to delivering impact at a hectic pace, with new roles, new strategies, and marketing materials appearing on an ongoing basis.

HEFCE’s definition of impact (crucial as it drives the government’s assessment of research – the REF or Research Excellence Framework) is ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’.

While, the REF tends to drive much talk about impact in university committees and cafés, there are the three key drivers of impact: the REF, civic mission, and research funding.

Research Evaluation Framework

The REF is the impetus for most impact development work at an institutional and departmental level, as there is money and reputation at stake, and the existence of clear rules make it easier to develop strategies to optimise performance in this area.

Civic mission

While all universities have a civic mission to benefit society through teaching and research, not all of them focus on this aspect of their research work equally. It is true that engagement with local organisations, public lectures, and programmes of public engagement do go some way to meeting this obligation. But civic mission – or the desire to do good for its own sake and be seen to be doing good – is often the driving force behind many researchers who do effective impact work.

Research funding

Research income growth is supported by impact activity. This is true whether it is driven by good pathways to impact for RCUK grants, by impact objectives to secure global challenges funding, or by engaging with external needs and agendas to deliver funding from non-traditional sources in industry and government.

Insights for Impact works to support and lead developments in all these areas.