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  • Writer's pictureSaskia Walcott

What is the value of research impact?

Defining research impact and value

I was at the research councils, now UKRI, during the early 2000s when the term impact started to be bandied about. It came to us from Whitehall, following a series of reviews on UK research and research assessment. I witnessed the early attempts to define this concept and how to apply it across the diversity of disciplines represented by the research councils.

As Head of Communications and PE at the ESRC at the time, and responsible for their then strapline: ‘the ESRC, making a difference,’ the general idea that research should be assessed on the difference it made to others, not only to new knowledge, seemed sensible to me.

It wasn’t until I left the ivory towers of the research councils that I realised that there was quite a lot of resistance and unhappiness with this new direction. This resistance I felt came from a very narrow definition of research impact that seemed stuck in economic models of value and genuine concern about what it would mean for SHAPE subjects.

So it got me thinking about what my definition of impact is. 

Impact as a state of mind

From the start, I have sought a definition and approach to impact that is human-centred. The impact I talk about is grounded in the definition of impact not as a set of activities you do to fulfil the KPIs of a grant, but as first and foremost a state of mind.  What I mean by that is that impact should encourage you to think differently about your research, how you approach it, and in some cases, how you conduct that research. 

Many years ago I heard Steven Hill, the Director of Research England, describe impact as an exercise in culture change. Until that point, no one else had articulated that underlying driver quite so explicitly. Instinctively, I could see that is what was afoot but it had not been officially confirmed, so I am intrigued to see impact now being aligned with the wider research culture conversation.

So it follows, that when it comes to the ‘value’ part of the ‘value of impact’ that I tend towards the definition of this word as a principle or standard of behaviour rather than a measure of extrinsic value that can be aligned to pounds and dollars. If you come at it from this perspective, there is a much richer depth to impact and so much more to celebrate about it. 

Value at individual, institutional, and societal levels

What is the value of impact for society?

The society level is fairly straightforward. Research impact is afterall all about creating positive change beyond academia. 

At its most basic level the value of impact for society is that taxpayers see the fruits of their tax pounds, euros or dollars. But if we take the definition of value I described previously, then the value of ‘impact’ is that more research is intentionally designed to contribute to positively enhancing the lives, health and wellbeing of our fellow citizens, and also benefiting our fellow Earth inhabitants in the natural world and our environment. 

What is the value of impact for an HE institution? 

A couple of years ago I may have made quite a cynical observation that many institutions pay lip service to impact but are not walking the walk. 

My more recent observation from the visits I make around the country is that a lot has changed for the better. It is a non-controversial statement that almost all institutions want their research to have an impact and that they understand how research with impact contributes to their social and civic missions and how it can support student recruitment. 

The value placed on research impact has definitely been aided by the rise of the research culture conversation. If impact itself is about culture change then it has a contribution to make to that conversation.

If you accept that impact is primarily a state of mind, then to achieve impact from research you need researchers with an outward-facing mindset, researchers who are encouraged, enabled and equipped to ask different questions, that have the courage to bring others into their research processes, to be challenged by new questions and to appreciate and recognise different forms of knowledge and knowing.  

Through this lens, research impact becomes a driver to create a more inclusive academic environment that values diversity in all its forms.   

And this isn’t just nice to have: research shows that Millennials and Gen Z more so than previous generations will make job and career choices based on their values. These generations are the early and mid-career researchers, likely many of you in this room.

So for institutions embracing research impact as a value-led exercise that supports a healthy research environment could help to retain talent in the coming years.

What is the value of impact for individual researchers?

Let’s now consider the individuals delivering this impact agenda, producing excellent research and facilitating the journey that takes that work from academic output to ‘real world’ benefit. What’s the value of impact to them? 

I am not a researcher nor work in a university, but I can offer some insights from a quick audience poll I did at a recent talk. The question I asked was:

What is the value of research impact to you as an individual researcher?

  1. It motivates me to approach my research differently

  2. It allows me to reconnect with the reasons I became a researcher 

  3. It fulfils part of my promotion criteria

  4. It encourages greater diversity and inclusivity in my research team

  5. It enables me to write a REF impact case study

  6. None of the above 

The results? Research impact adds value most in how it motivates us to think about, approach and conduct our research in new and innovative ways and reminds us why we chose research as a career in the first place.

Impact is complicated

Whilst I am undoubtedly an impact enthusiast - I love helping to upskill and support researchers successfully navigate that impact journey - I am all too aware that there are some complexities inherent in being in this space, namely.

I am sympathetic to the charge that the impact agenda manifests a neo-liberal worldview that reduces knowledge to a commodity.  I also agree that there is perhaps an overly relentless positivity underpinning the storytelling of impact without sufficient attention to the negative stories. 

There is the question of the ethics of engagement that underpins the pursuit of research impact and how to ensure engagement is carried out equitably. There is a real danger of damaging relationships with partners due to the pressure to acquire evidence of impact for the REF. 

However, my primary beef in the impact space is that researchers are still expected, more often than not, to fit in their impact work alongside their admin, teaching and research time.  Access to funds that allow you to advance the impact of your research also remains a challenge. UKRI has improved access to the IAA across UK HEIs but this is not enjoyed universally across the sector.

If impact is an exercise in culture change then we are probably about halfway through that exercise if you accept that sustainable culture change takes a couple of decades to bed in. A lot has changed for the better but there remains a challenge for the sector, post-pandemic, in challenging financial times for some not all universities, to truly acknowledge the time and commitment it takes to achieve change from research. This is understood, but it may require a radical rethink of how academic time is organised and allocated. I won’t pretend that I have an easy answer to this, as there isn’t one, but There were no research impact managers 10 years ago. That role has been created to meet a need. And there are fellows and partnership posts that have been created to accommodate this but they are usually short-term. Is there another way to organise workload models to better accommodate the work associated with generating impact?

Creating routes to impact

Engaging widely to ensure your research is purposeful and creating those all important routes to impact is something to be celebrated. After all, impact is not something you achieve on your own but by putting in the work to establish good working relationships and to understand how your knowledge can be used to solve problems and work through the sticky bits. 

Not every piece of research you do will lead to some paradigm-shifting change, but it will all contribute to new knowledge that can be built on by others and that is as it should be. 

I hope that the idea of impact as part of a healthy research culture resonates. And that engaging with impact as a mindset and not just a set of activities can ultimately contribute to research that respects and pursues inclusivity and diversity in the teams you bring together, in the questions you ask, and in whom you involve. 

Saskia has worked as an independent consultant in the impact space for 12 years which has allowed her the privilege of working with many 100s of researchers to help them discover, understand, present and advance the impact of their research. She has worked across the breadth of the UK’s higher education institutions and around the world - with universities that are just building a research base through to established research-intensive universities.

This blog is adapted from Saskia’s opening keynote speech at the University of Durham’s Celebration of Impact event in April 2024.

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