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What is research impact and why it matters

What is research impact?

There are many definitions of what constitutes research impact. In its simplest definition, impact is about making a difference in the ‘real world’, outside of academia. Research contributes to numerous types of real world impact, including improving health and wellbeing, creating economic prosperity, enhancing cultural enrichment and quality of life and improving environmental sustainability.

Some of the definitions of research impact include:

  • UKRI (UK Research and Innovation): “The demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy”.
  • NIHR: “Impact is defined as the demonstrable contribution that research makes to society and the economy, of benefit to individuals, organisations and nations”.
  • REF2021: “An effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”.

It is important to bear in mind that impact does not have a single consistent meaning across disciplines, countries and sectors. 

The importance of research impact

  • The research funding landscape. Describing the impact of your research is now a pre-requisite for a large number of funding bodies, such as UKRI, European Commission, NIHR, Cancer Research UK and Wellcome. For Research Council grant applications, impact activities are expected to be integrated into an application’s research programme, and you are asked to describe your plans to generate social, economic and/or academic impact through your Case for Support and Justification.  Research is no longer an end in its own right and impact no longer equates to publishing research papers in high impact factor journals that are highly cited but which the greater, non-academic community remain unaware of. The UK funding landscape has moved from a situation where impact was the serendipitous outcome of research to one where we need to demonstrate to our funders the benefit of their investment in our research.
  • Research assessment via the Research Excellence Framework, which demonstrates the value of public investment in research (“return on investment”) and evidences the benefits of this investment. REF2014 was the first time that societal and economic impact was included in this UK national research quality assessment exercise. REF2014 drove the allocation of around £1.6 billion per annum of QR funding to English HEIs over seven years, £320M of which was determined by the impact component. In REF2021 impact is worth even more of the overall submission (it will be worth 25%) and a huge amount of potential funding is at stake, depending on the quality of impact case studies returned to REF.  
  • Accountability for public investment in research to the public. It has a moral purpose – impact shows the benefit of research, and the value of research institutions, to society.  UKRI invested £8 billion of tax payers' money in research and innovation funding for the year ending 31 March 2019 - impact asks the question "What is the return on that investment for the average person on the street?”
  • The UoM Vision and Strategic Plan.  Generating impact (i.e. ensuring that the public benefits from our research) is integral to Our future: The University of Manchester’s vision and strategic plan and applies to all areas of University activity. One of eight the measures of success is “Impact on society”, where the UoM will measure its success against a portfolio of measures and quality marks of social, cultural, economic and environmental impact. Impact is central to the University’s goals for world-class research and social responsibility and is a strategic priority. Impact provides benchmarks and reputational yardsticks for institutions and there is now formal recognition of impact activities for individuals (in the UoM promotions criteria and in P&DRs).

 

Types of Impact

Impact exists in many forms. It is possible to categorise impacts, which is useful to help researchers to consider the full range of impacts they could seek.

Impacts can include beneficial changes to the following:

  1. Health and wellbeing - Research that leads to better outcomes for the health and wellbeing of individuals, groups or communities, including improvements to quality fo life, emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing and life satisfaction.  
  2. Economy - Financial benefits that arise from research such as profit, employment of staff, money saved, costs avoided or increases in turnover. 
  3. Policy - Research that contributes to new or amended laws, regulations or other policy mechanisms that deliver a benefit to the public.
  4. Awareness and understanding - Research that allows individuals, groups or communities to understand an issue better than they did previously.
  5. Attitudes and behaviours - Research that causes a change in attitudes and behaviour of individuals, groups or communities, leading them to develop a new attitude that brings benefits to them or others. 
  6. Society and culture - Research that delivers benefits to specific social groups not covered by other types of impact.
  7. Environment - Benefits from research to species or habitat conservation, climate modelling, sustainable energy use or ecosystems.

Examples of impact

The following information provides some examples of types of impacts that could be achieved. These examples are indicative only, and in practice much of the impact will cross over boundaries and go beyond what is listed here. 

Impacts on the economy

  • A spin-out company or new business has been created, generated revenue or profits and employed staff.
  • Design and delivery of new products that have made or saved money for a company.
  • Contribution to policies, which have had an impact on economic growth or incentivising productivity.
  • Gains in productivity as a result of research-led changes in practice.
  • Strategy, operations or workplace practices of a business have changed.
  • Potential future losses have been mitigated by improved methods of risk assessment or management in safety or security situations. 
  • Business performance has been improved through the provision of consultancy or training for staff.
  • More effective dispute resolution. 

 Impacts on the environment

  • Improvement to the design or implementation of environmental policy or regulation.
  • Management or conservation of natural resources such as wood, water, food or energy, leading to change in a developing country.
  • Management of environmental risk or hazard has changed.
  • Changes in practices or policies affecting biodiversity.
  • Increased understanding of the environmental impact of a product or process means that it is not adopted by industry.
  • Direct intervention, based on research evidence that has led to a reduction in carbon dioxide or other environmentally damaging emissions.

Impacts on health and wellbeing

  • Outcomes for patients or related groups have been improved.
  • Public health or wellbeing has been improved.
  • Quality of life for a group or community has been improved by new products or processes.
  • Patient health outcomes have been improved through the availability of a new drug, treatment or therapy.
  • A new diagnostic or clinical technology has been adopted.
  • Healthcare training guidelines have changed.
  • Disease prevention or markers of health have been enhanced.

Impacts on policy

  • Policy decisions or changes to legislation, regulation or guidelines have been informed by research evidence.
  • The quality, accessibility or cost-effectiveness of a public service has been improved. 
  • Research recommendations are taken up by policy makers through membership of a government advisory committee.
  • Policymakers use research evidence in developing policy.
  • Research stimulates critical public debate that leads to the non-adoption of a policy.
  • Research helps to highlight issues of concern to parliamentarians and contributes to new analysis of existing issues.

Impacts on awareness and understanding

  • Public interest and engagement has been stimulated through, for example, enhancement of science education in schools.
  • Changes to education or the school curriculum have been informed by research.
  • Changes to conventional wisdom, stimulating debate among stakeholders.
  • Enhanced understanding of cultural issues and phenomena.

Impacts on attitudes and behaviour

  • Shaping or informing public attitudes and values.
  • A group or community has developed a new appreciation for alternative views and a more positive attitude towards people who hold differing views.
  • A group or community has developed less prjudicial or other negative feelings towards others.
  • Changing attitudes within a business towards female or non-white employees.

Impacts on society and culture

  • Professionals and organisations have adapted to changing cultural values.
  • Increased understanding of gender roles leading to improved equality.
  • Improved social welfare, equality, social inclusion to justice and other opportunities including employment and education.
  • Contribution to community regeneration.
  • Changes to social policy informed by research. 

Why is impact important from an academic perspective

  1. Career development opportunities: building external networks and experience of collaborative working.
  2. Raise your profile and increase chances of promotion.
  3. Gaining an understanding of the needs of potential research users.
  4. Gaining access to new data and funding sources.
  5. Seeing your science translated into a real-world benefit.

 

Why is impact important from a research user perspective?

  1. Research can inform the development and/or review of policy and practice.
  2. Gaining access to innovative ideas and expertise.
  3. Adding value and enhancing organisational creativity, performance and productivity through collaborations and partnerships.
  4. Gaining access to collaborative funding.
  5. Improvement to quality of life through access to novel products, treatments, technologies or initiatives.

 

 

Why does impact matter to UK funders?

  1. Researchers and institutions are accountable for how they spend public money and therefore need to be able to demonstrate the benefits (impact) of that investment to society.
  2. Research can be improved by engaging with a broad range of potential beneficiaries thus driving up the quality of the research we do.
  3. Investing in impact can shorten the time to realising and maximising the benefits of the research.
  4. Through encouraging impact activities and championing successful initiatives the reputation of the university and wider UK research is strengthened, increasing the attractiveness for research and innovation investment.