Last month, we bought a new (old) campervan. It's something I've wanted for years, so we were delighted to find one up for sale just down the road - and lucky enough to put in the winning bid. Lovingly named Lola, the van marks the next phase in our journeys around Scotland. But you don't need your own van - or even a tent - to come on today's adventure. Because I'm talking about the research impact* journey. This journey takes you through the research process, laying the foundations for impact as you go. So grab your coat and join us. You know you want
* When we talk about research impact, we use the basic definition that research impact is the provable effects or benefits of research in the world beyond academia.
Our impact journey consists of 8 stops, each one designed to help you think about impact at different stages of your research, from designing the initial research question or issue to writing about the change your research has made. It's a work in progress, based on my experience of working on REF Impact Case Studies, impact features and impact training over the past couple of years, and drawing on lots of other impact thinking. And it's not a linear journey - there might be times when you need to loop back a stop or two before moving forward. But hopefully, by the end of the journey, you'll have all the basic information you need to start planning for impact.
1: What difference will your research make?
Impact planning starts at the point when you begin to design your research project. As you approach new research, think about the purpose of the project, or why you're doing the research. What issues are you trying to explore? What problem are you trying to solve? What gaps are you trying to fill? A really useful tip – taken from the Impact Literacy Workbook, by Dr Julie Bayley and Dr David Phipps and published by Emerald – is to quantify this purpose. Is there too much of something, or too little? Is there insufficient understanding? Or are you addressing unsafe practices? Once you've quantified the problem or issue, think about the difference that your research will make to the world beyond academia. So, if your research is addressing too much of something, then the impact will be a reduction in that amount. If there's too little of something, your research will help to increase it. If your research is exploring unsafe practices, then impact of your research will be to increase safety. Or, if the issue is poor quality information in a particular area, then your impact will be around improving the quality of information. I've worked with researchers in a wide range of disciplines – from the fine arts to bench scientists – and this approach has been helpful across the subject areas.
2: Who is your research for?
Once you’ve articulated the question or issue that your research is going to address, the next stop on the impact journey is to think about who your research is for: both those who might benefit from the findings AND those who should be included throughout the research process. Your research could involve and benefit lots of different groups of people, so take time to think about who those groups might be. You might be doing research that provides evidence for a policy, so your beneficiaries would be policy makers and, in time, users of that policy. Your research might develop a new approach for health and care services, involving patients and clinicians throughout the research process and benefitting health and care professionals and members of the public. Your research might create new cultural capital, benefitting museums, the cultural sector and community groups. Being clear about who the research is for will help throughout your impact journey.
3: How will you reach these people?
Next, think about how you might involve people in your research and make them aware of the findings. If you're working with others throughout your project, this could be through co-production at different stages of the process, participatory research, consultation with stakeholder groups to understand their ideas, perceptions or experiences or asking for feedback at different project milestones to help you shape the next phase. You might need to work with others to help raise the profile of your research, prepare briefings, or share the findings with practitioners. The more you involve different people in your research, the more champions you’ll have to talk about your project and the better informed your research will be – as you’ll have listened to the needs of potential beneficiaries and taken those needs into account. There are lots of tools out there to help you identify stakeholders and engage with them in different ways, and a great place to start is the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement.
4: What skills and resources do you need?
Skills for research and skills for creating change in the world beyond academia are not always the same so you'll also need think about what you’ll need to deliver your impact ambitions. Will you need to manage partnerships? Work with communities? Influence policy makers? Manage events? Or commercialise a product or process? Identify the specific skills you’ll need to achieve the impact you want, reflect on any gaps, and then build a team with the right skills or build your own expertise. Impact can also require additional resources, so think carefully about this from the start of the project. Will you need a website (and someone to manage it?)? Event budgets? An online survey platform? Additional time to work with others or share your results? Think about what you’ll need to achieve impact and then seek advice on available funds.
5: What will change as a result of your research?
As we pass the halfway mark on our journey, its a good time to remind ourselves of what will change as a result of the research, in the short, medium and longer term. At stop 1, we thought about the difference our research might make. Now it's time to be as specific and as precise as you can in terms of what will change, and what the benefit or impact will be. For example, if your research is about filling a gap in information or evidence, your research might contribute to changes in policy, legislation, or guidance. This change in policy is initial impact. Longer-term impact will (hopefully) be changes in practice or behaviours as a result of the new policy. If your research is designing and evaluating a new health intervention, then the initial impact would be the introduction of that new intervention, with longer-term impacts being improvements in patient outcomes. If your research forms the basis of an exhibition that presents new perspectives on a particular subject, then impacts might include generating income for the museum or gallery and increasing understanding in the subject. Longer-term, this might mean changes in public attitudes. Think as broadly as you can about the difference that your reseach might make and keep track of potential impacts as your research develops, so you can take advantage of any new opportunities.
6: How will you know?
Planning for different types of impact is great, but to know something has changed, you need to know what the situation looked like before your research. This means gathering information at the start of your project to set a 'baseline' position, then checking on what has changed throughout your project (particularly important if you are co-developing any research) and finally continuing to check what’s changed when you finish your research, and as you share your research findings. Research can continue to have impact a long time after a project is finished, so this checking process could last a long time. Taking this initial position might not seem like a natural part of the research process, but you're probably already doing it! As you think about the question or issue your research is addressing, you'll have a sense of what needs to change. So, just formalise this part of your thinking and quantify what you can.
7: How will you demonstrate the impact of your research?
Our penultimate stop on the impact journey is to gather the evidence of change, so that you can demonstrate the difference your research has made by collecting evidence of that change – something that goes hand in hand with stop 6. And evidence isn't only important for REF impact case studies; demonstrating a track-record of impact is also important for grant funding and promotion. Because impacts can be so varied, and beneficiaries so broad, it follows that there are also lots of different types of evidence, ranging from qualitative measures – like audience feedback, testimonials from partners or public debate in the media – to quantitative ones, like jobs created or protected, income generated or changes in practice leading to greater productivity. Remember, your evidence should focus on what has changed with reference to your research.
8: How will you talk about your research impact?
And now we've made it to the final stop! You've finished your project and your research is making a difference in the world. So, how do you tell people about that change? Like evidence, this is useful for funding applications, REF impact case studies, career development and your reputation as a researcher. So here are some dos and don’ts. DO focus on what has changed in the world beyond academia as a result of your research and talk about the direction of that change – what has increased or decreased, what has started or stopped. As with all communications, be clear and concise, and use a logical structure. Talk about why the research was relevant and use evidence to demonstrate that change has been or will be achieved. Make sure you refer to the people involved in your research – partners, contributors and beneficiaries. And be clear about what has changed. DON’T just focus on one-way communication or presume that impact will just happen because you’ve put your research out there. Don’t be vague, waffle or be non-committal about what has changed. Don’t assume that people will make the link between what has changed and your research – be explicit about those connections. The key is to make it as easy as possible for your reader (or listener) to make clear links between your research and the impact, understand what has changed, how it has changed and who has benefited. If you want more tips on writing clearly for non-expert audiences, check this post on communicating clearly.
And that's all there is to it! Research impact isn't easy - it takes time, effort and planning to make a difference to the world. But it's also not impossible. So start your next research project with impact in mind from that start and use the available resources** to keep you on the right track.