It has become a truism that researchers are increasingly expected to think about the impact of their research. I’m defining impact here as “the beneficial effects of research on society, beyond academia and academic peers”. This expectation of impact is a result of both the growth in number and scale of international research assessment exercises – such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK or the Engagement and Impact Assessment (E&I) in Australia – and funder requirements in grant applications. That said, it is also true that many researchers value the real-world benefits their research can bring outside of academia and find that looking to improve this can enhance satisfaction with their work. It can also stimulate creative, new approaches to their research, such as prompting new research questions or providing access to new data.
These two categories of driver are not always aligned, however, and a mismatch of researcher aspirations and institutional requirements can disrupt healthy research practices. These include practices of the sort that are currently being addressed in initiatives focused on ‘research culture’ by governments, Universities, and cross-disciplinary organisations such as Wellcome, the Royal Society in the UK, and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in Australia.
Structural changes need to be implemented to improve research culture, but one area that Institutions and researchers can adopt to develop a more constructive ethos of research impact is adequate support for impact planning. I am increasingly approached by organisations looking to provide impact planning training, coaching or other support for their researchers, or by researchers wanting to develop improved plans for their projects. These requests are usually driven by one of three imperatives: an understanding that planning for impact can improve efficiency, that it can improve effectiveness of impact generation, or that it can enable improved evidence collection.
Planning for impact
Some researchers have a sense that impact will arise from research in a serendipitous, quasi-magical way and that there is no point in planning because you can’t predict outcomes. Although it is very likely that any impact plans may need to be adapted and adjusted over the life of a project, recent research by Ohid Yaqub, Dmitry Malkov and Josh Siepel at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex found that most research projects they looked at were able to achieve the impact they planned for. The study examined 10% of the REF impact case studies where it was possible to identify pathways to impact document in grants. The researchers found that by far the majority (76%) were able to achieve impact they planned for. The researchers reflect thoughtfully on selection bias for the REF but conclude that impact planning seems to produce expected outcomes.
So, what should researchers do to plan for impact? Starting early is essential. Planning for impact should be an integral part of overall project planning, and in many cases can drive the purpose and function of research projects. It’s smart to engage with stakeholders before planning your project to ensure you understand their needs and attitudes to the subject and ensure you are shaping the research in ways that will be useful.
Five key questions
Once you have relevant stakeholders on board – and building these relationships may be the work of months or even years – you can consider what sort of planning is going to work for you. Some funders request formal frameworks such as a logic model or theory of change to underpin impact planning, but I find that addressing five key questions is an easy and accessible way into impact planning which can be adapted to more formal requirements as required.
My five key questions are:
Why? Who? What? How? And How will you know?
The Why? question is aimed at starting with the end in mind. Thinking about why you are doing what you are doing and why it matters can generate ideas you can work into meaningful impact objectives that resonate with your own motivation and priorities.
Who? Is about identifying stakeholders in terms of both participants in the project and ultimate beneficiaries, as well as ensuring you have good representation of both in your project.
You can build on this by looking at What? This means “What will change for these stakeholders? What is the impact in relation to these different groups?” Identifying appropriate stakeholders and building relationships is the most valuable, and most challenging, activity in many impact projects. The SPRU research concluded: “our findings suggest that relationships between researchers and stakeholders (cf. Perkmann et al 2021) are probably more likely to be associated with eventual impact than being able to correctly predict that a topic will be relevant.”
The How? question is going to drive your impact activities: “How will you help this happen? So, what steps will you put in place to ensure benefits can accrue to stakeholders in the way you expect?” This section can of course be supplemented by When? so you can timetable this activity.
And finally, How will you know? requires you to think about what indicators of impact you will look for and how you will collect evidence to show that. This step is vital not only for later reporting to funders or for research evaluation; it’s also critical for checking your impact work is proceeding effectively, allowing for course-corrections if necessary.
Done right, impact planning brings together three key strategic aims: to improve efficiency, to improve effectiveness of impact generation, and to improve the quality of evidence collection. One of the main barriers to researchers engaging with impact development is the multiple demands on their time. Although the rewards can be great, there is a sense that investing time in impact generation is riskier than writing another paper or applying for a grant. Planning helps overcome these barriers by enabling researchers to focus effort on the most productive activities. It can enable appropriate resourcing so that researchers can call on support rather than try to deliver this alone, and it can reduce risk by identifying useful stakeholders, activities, and evidence from the outset.
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.