The rise of impact and the growing need for institutional research impact strategies

Researchers today are under increasing pressure to systematically plan for, measure, evidence, and, report the impact – economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits – of their work. Apart from the significant increase in weighting of the impact criteria in UK’s next national research assessment exercise, Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021, all Research Councils UK (RCUK) grant applications also require researchers to consider carefully at the outset the potential beneficiaries of their research and to draw up impact plans for targeted engagement activities – in the form of an impact summary and a pathways to impact document – in order to ensure the best design and uptake of research.

This is not just the case in the UK. Of the three criteria used to assess Horizon 2020 (the EU’s €80billion research and innovation funding programme) grant applications, impact is the dominant measure. Outside of Europe, Australia is introducing its own pilot Engagement and Impact Assessment (EI) 2018 exercise to run parallel to its main national research assessment exercise, while Hong Kong is following in UK’s REF footsteps by introducing impact as a key criterion in their Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2020.

The importance of a research impact strategy

Significant investment is made every year by governments into university research. For example, in 2015 £8billion (€11billion) was spent by the UK higher education sector on research. As most university research funding is supported by public funds, to demonstrate return on investment and to maintain and improve the high quality of research undertaken within universities, government policies in recent years have sought to introduce frameworks for the systematic planning, reporting and evaluation of impact. Universities are under more pressure than ever before to ensure that the right impact skills and knowledge is cultured among their researchers, and, that the appropriate support mechanisms and research environment is available to them.

Despite the increased importance of planning for and demonstrating impact and the strong funder requirements around this, institutional support remains at the relatively early stages of embeddedness and naturally it remains an area many academics feel ill-equipped to tackle. As the saying goes, impact is not meant to be an ‘add-on’ (or an afterthought to a project). On an institutional level – to be truly effective – impact must be embedded in the institution’s research culture. A well developed and implemented institutional research impact strategy can do just this.

So what is a research impact strategy and how can it help?

A research impact strategy should be aligned with the top level institutional mission and strategy, and, support the achievement of one or more of the institutional key performance indicators. Its development and implementation should involve – or preferably be led by – senior management. Clear and regular messaging from research leaders that impact is important and core to the university’s mission is a starting point in embedding impact as part of a university’s research culture. The strategy should also be developed in close consultation with the university’s researchers and research support staff to ensure proper buy-in and that they deem it useful for their needs.

A research impact strategy and its corresponding implementation plan should provide clarity of purpose. It needs to define key objectives and the mechanisms that will be used to achieve them. Furthermore, it should set out roles and responsibilities and an approach towards the systematic allocation of time and resources for these. Ideally, such a strategy needs be based on a proper analysis and understanding of areas of strength and weakness for the university in terms of impact, key blockers, the main areas to focus resources and time in the shorter term, and the areas to build further capacity going forward.

An institutional impact strategy, when properly implemented, should provide a clear long-term vision, help develop engagement and impact skills among both research and research support staff, and, ensure that the necessary guidance, support systems (e.g. IT systems to track and evidence impact) and appropriate research environment is available to them. Roles that can help ‘champion’ impact and guide staff should be embedded within departments and on a leadership level, and, the strategy should also provide mechanisms and platforms that both incentivise and celebrate impact.

Webinar – Developing and embedding a research impact strategy

To take a deeper look at the topic of developing and implementing institutional impact strategies, we held a webinar with guest speaker, Jenny Ames, who has over 30 years of experience working with universities from all over the United Kingdom. Jenny was the Associate Dean at University of the West of England (Bristol) where she was also Research Impact Lead. She oversaw submissions to Units of Assessment 3, 6 and 22 for REF 2014. In 2017, Jenny was Impact Lead for University Alliance.

The webinar is aimed at supporting those who want to know more about or are involved in developing and implementing impact strategies at institutions involved in research and addresses questions such as:

  • Why should a university develop a research impact strategy?
  • What are the key considerations when developing and implementing a research impact strategy?
  • What are the key components of a research impact strategy?
  • What should be the role of Impact Officers and the Research Office in developing and implementing one?