What next for Impact? Update on Research Impact Network event 30th April.

(This article first appeared in the 1st issue of ARMA’s new publication ‘The Protagonist’.  With huge thanks to members of the Research Impact Network Co-ordination Group who read, commented and suggested edits to this article).

The ‘E’s of Impact


The publication of the REF2014 results generated an almost frenetic discussion about how well Institutions performed on ‘Impact’, with many HEI’s celebrating their success. Now that HEFCE have published the case studies, all eyes will be on those institutions that performed particularly well to see whether we can discern what constitutes world-leading impact. Where does that leave those of us tasked with supporting research and impact? Our work has changed, and we have adapted so far – but we will need to continue to do so in this dynamic field over the next few years.

By the time we reach REF2020, our best guess is that the impact weighting is likely to increase to at least 25%, but even if the format and the process stays largely the same we will no longer be approaching impact as a retrospective exercise.

Beyond the REF, RCUK have reaffirmed their commitment to the Pathways to Impact document as a condition of funding. From 1st April this year, grant applications must be accompanied by an acceptable ‘Pathways to Impact’ document (although what counts as ‘acceptable’ is less clear). Impact statements are already required for Horizon 2020 proposals. Not only is impact here to stay, but it is no longer optional. All of this underpins broader debates within the Academy and beyond about the value and benefits of academic research to society and the economy.

The stakes are high and we cannot afford to bask in the glory of REF2014 for too long (if we ever could). The Research Impact Network[i] has already sought to stimulate conversation amongst our professional community about where we go from here. At our inaugural event in February 2014, we identified three C’s; Creating a culture for Impact; Capturing Impact and Communicating Impact. These still provide a good broad framework, although we could now segue into five ‘E’s: Engagement; Evidence; Evaluation; Economies of Scale and Ecosystem.

Engaging end-users with academic research is clearly something that already happens successfully– the 6,975 case studies submitted to REF2014 underline this point. This engagement is also something that we can improve; by nurturing mutually beneficial partnerships between academics and publics; supporting translational activities to bridge gaps in understanding and through the embedding of engagement throughout the research lifecycle from the design stage and beyond.

The relationship between engagement and impact warrants further debate, as there is real risk that certain types of impact might be prioritised if they are easier to realise within short timescales (before the next REF submission). This could disadvantage research where the potential impacts are more long-term and conceptual or challenging to bring about such as policy impacts in areas that are difficult to infiltrate.) Will research in the Arts and Humanities be at a disadvantage if many of their impacts are based on public engagement? The audience in a workshop led by the Research Impact Network at the NCCPE’s Engage Conference concluded that the REF had been a positive force for raising the profile of public engagement in Universities. Understanding the demonstrable contribution of public engagement to the impact agenda is a vital part of part of ensuring that public engagement does not become side-lined in favour of other types of impact.

And, so how can we evidence these contributions? Technology can only help us so far. Databases will only ever be as useful as the information we put into them. This article is not the place to get into a discussion on metrics but we all know that the HEFCE review report which will appear later on this year will fuel further debate about the types of indicators or evidence that are considered robust demonstrators of impact.

Evidence on its own is insufficient – it needs to be contextualized and evaluated. This requires an understanding of the types of impact which are most highly valued within a particular field or discipline, but it also relates to how analytical tools and techniques can help us demonstrate impact in each of these dimensions. Could ‘big-data’, for example, help or hinder us with this challenge?

‘Economies of scale’ through interdisciplinary or multi-institutional research projects may help extend the reach and significance of impact based on evidence and innovations from multiple sources of research. The current REF reporting format doesn’t necessarily allow for this to be demonstrated easily with its requirement that case studies are submitted by institution and by Unit of Assessment. HEFCE’s intention to commission work with RCUK to examine this issue[ii] is a welcome opportunity.

Much of the above could be understood within the context of an impact ‘eco-system’. This was suggested in the Research Impact Network’s February 2014 report, and refers to the interconnectedness and interdependencies, within our institutions and beyond, that contribute to creating the conditions for impact and demonstrating that we have been successful.

The Research Impact Network will be discussing all of these points (and more) at its next event in April 2015. We are also beginning to explore the characteristics of professional roles that have emerged and evolved to support impact across the sector. Some commentators have urged caution against the creation of an ‘impact industry’ however, it is likely that research managers or impact officers are likely to have the unenviable but pivotal role of co-ordinating the 5 ‘E’s to ensure that institutions are making the most of their opportunity to demonstrate impact.


Members of our network have kindly volunteered their expertise to run parallel sessions at our event on 30th April. Topics include:
– Coaching Researchers to deliver impact
– Overcoming Issues in Case Study Generation
– Designing Support for Impact throughout the Academic Career
– Thinking creatively about how to repurpose impact case studies for other audiences
– The Extent of Institutional Impact Change
– Navigating Peer Review Processes for the Assessment of Impact

Workshop choices will be circulated to delegates shortly to sign up in advance of the event.

[i] https://researchimpactnetwork.wordpress.com/

[ii] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/12/17/time-for-reflection/

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