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Let's talk about impact

Hanging around the research community for any length of time means one thing - you get to learn about impact! But what does it mean? And what does Lucidity have to do with it? In this post, we look at the rise of research impact and our work in helping to identify and evaluate it.

What is research impact?

Impact has become big news in the academic community over the past few years, not least because of government efforts to measure the value of research. Put simply, research impact is the demonstrable contribution that research makes to society and the economy. It takes us beyond the dissemination and communication of research to what has actually been changed by that research. This can range from people's understanding of a particular interest or area, to changes in practice or policy that are based on research.

Impact is broadly categorised in three ways:

  1. Capacity building: creating change through training and skills development.

  2. Conceptual: contributing to the understanding of policy issues and reframing debates

  3. Instrumental: influencing the development of policy or practice

Using these categories, impact can occur in many ways. It might be about inventing new products. It might contribute to a change in public policy, or a different way for a policy to be put into practice. Or it might lead to different approaches, for example to how a health problem is diagnosed or treated.

Why does impact matter?

The purpose of all research is to find out something new. And - for the vast majority of researchers and research projects - this new knowledge or findings will lead to specific benefits for specific groups of people. So, while it has not always been described as an integral part of research, impact has always been an important factor.

Of course, in today's world, with increased pressure on funding and the need to demonstrate the benefits of investment, there has been a growing focus on the impact each research project is delivering, and how and when that impact can be demonstrated, making researchers more accountable for that investment. There is also an increasing acknowledgement that involving a wide range of potential beneficiaries from an early stage improves the quality of the research. And there is a growing realisation that we can all benefit from different research findings, be they about the importance of vaccinations or the misuse of social media.

The challenges of measuring impact

The sheer range of impact types means that's it impossible to define one single way to measure research impact. In some areas, it can be easy. Your research enables you to design a widget to solve a problem that takes time, or costs money, or affects people's health and wellbeing. Your widget solves the problem, thereby saving time and/ or money or improves people's health. In other areas, however, this causal link between research and benefit is much harder to find. Sometimes, even a correlation between research and end result is elusive. Not only that; there is often a long time lag between research project and benefit, creating further challenges.

All this means that it takes effort and time to ensure that your research is making a difference. Impact needs to be a central part of your research project from the very start, involving potential beneficiaries at every stage. Researchers need to be focused on the changes they are trying to achieve and open to other types of impact that might come about because of the research. And they need to find ways to measure and evidence that impact, talking to end-users and quantifying, where possible, what has changed, and how.

Case study: CREST

We recently carried out an evaluation of research impact for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), which was established in 2015 as a national hub for security research. The nature of the research - and the end-users - meant that there were a range of challenges in identifying and evaluating the changes that had come about because of the research. By gathering the perceptions of a wide range of people - researchers, funders and other end-users - we were able to report on the impact CREST research had achieved. Our report is available on the CREST website here, with a case study of the project below.

Further resources

Impact is a tricky area, so it's good to have a set of resources to help! Here are a few of the places we look:

How we can help

If you're looking for help getting to grips with your research impact, we're here for you! We can help you look at your overall strategy for impact, plan for research evaluation exercises or help to write your REF2021 impact case studies. Just get in touch to discuss what you need. We'd be delighted to work with you.


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