Research in the Real World: The Importance of Impact

Research Impact is not new. In its broadest sense, it occurs when a piece of research yields a benefit to society, the economy, culture or the environment. However, it is fast becoming a key metric of the value of Research. And what is driving the Impact agenda? The need to justify to the taxpayer the added value that the UK’s world-leading research provides to communities and the economies around them.

But what does impact mean to academia? And what relationship does it have to research and funding?

Delivering his presentation at Idox’s workshop at the 2016 ARMA Conference, Dr Karl Smith of London South Bank University sought to answer these very questions.

With the ‘impact agenda’ now embedded in the research landscape, Dr Smith frames the relationship between research, impact and funding as ‘The Golden Triangle’, emphasising that ‘we cannot underestimate the importance of impact. It is vital’. Impact provides a means of both leveraging research funding from atypical funding sources and validating the quality of research.

Impact in the research process

The Research Excellence Framework 2014 (REF) set in place the requirement for universities to ensure that their research has real-world relevance – Impact. The ability to demonstrate the impact of research on society – whether economic, cultural, political, environmental or beyond – evidences that research is about far more than just academic advancement. And, with ‘Impact’ having accounted for 20% of the 2014 REF assessment score and speculation that this may be further increased in the next REF, the Impact agenda will only continue to increase in importance.

A strong Pathways to Impact carries significant weight in Research Councils UK (RCUK) grant applications. This illustrates a current trend in shifting from a pure focus on research excellence, to a wider perspective that encompasses both knowledge translation and the sharing of the wider benefits of research. Horizon 2020 – the EU’s flagship funding programme – is also underpinned by impact. Of the three criteria used, the dominant measure is now Impact.

Dr Smith referenced Sir Thomas Moore in his presentation: ‘The duty of an intellectual in society is to make a difference’. And it is this ‘difference’ that is underpinned by impact.

How does Impact take place? By research dissemination and especially the identification and engagement of the wider beneficiaries of the research, the research project lifecycle has so extended. It reaches beyond the delivery of a publication, to the use of that publication to shape the wider world, whether through policy, the formation of new commercial products and spin-offs, or behavioural change by the individual, society or industry.

The modern research process

The three components of research, funding and impact are not mutually exclusive. We can say that funding supports research and that impact is a collective by-product of strong research and appropriate funding.

‘But why do researchers and academics need funding?’ asked Dr Smith during his presentation. ‘And why should they want it’? After all, it takes time to complete grant applications and there is no guarantee of success. However, just some of the benefits include:

  • Improved chances of promotion and/or career development
  • Opportunities to travel
  • Increased capability of building collaborations and networks
  • The ability to buy in expertise
  • The ability to purchase equipment and resources
  • The opportunity to develop esteem and build reputation
  • The chance to sustain overheads and support job security

All in all, there is a vested interest for the academic. Funding is integral to research: it keeps the cogs turning and gets new projects off the ground.

Traditionally, the relationship between Research and Funding was one-dimensional. Good-quality research improved the chances of receiving funding and the ability to secure funding increased the capability to deliver more good-quality research and so, generate additional funding. But the research model has evolved.  When we look beyond the research itself and its traditional outputs, what is left? How do we prove its legacy? The answer is ‘impact’.

Translating impact to the real world

‘Research isn’t purely about producing papers, it’s about producing innovation and informing service delivery’, Dr Smith noted. Impact has its uses – having defined impact goals in research can:

  • Maximise research funding potential and increase income generation – impact is scored favourably in research funding applications; harness this funding potential
  • Broaden the research funding sources available – the service delivery aspect of impact widens the funding streams available, making accessible those for charities, corporations, local government etc. Services such as RESEARCHconnect cover the thousands of funding opportunities available from multiple sources
  • Help to raise the profile of the research/department/school/institution – impact pushes the research out to the others, increasing visibility and heightening engagement
  • Enhance the research – it provides the opportunity to collaborate and involve more stakeholders (partners, beneficiaries, professional bodies etc.), enriching the research with eclecticism
  • Validate the research – research that has been adopted or demonstrated impact is proven to be useful, credible and of excellent quality. Real and robust research is the end goal
  • Define the research – determining the direct and indirect research beneficiaries allows those involved to hone in on the short and long term benefits, helps to outline the purpose and aims of the research and encourages people to ask the right questions. Needs and drivers allow researchers to make a tailored case for support and undertake a costs/benefits analysis
  • Convert the research into money – beneficiaries and partners can be used as leverage to generate additional funding e.g. Innovate UK does not provide funding to universities directly but will support those with an industrial partner

However, as with everything, impact also brings along its own challenges and criticisms. Some argue that increasingly prioritising impact will:

  • shift resource and quality away from the research itself;
  • risk diluting research excellence;
  • jeopardise the UK’s innovation system by changing the fundamental research structures;
  • discourage novel and high-risk research resulting in homogenous research efforts; and
  • produce potentially negative, unexpected impacts and bring about unnecessary costs e.g. by enforcing new frameworks for research excellence.

Dr Smith expressed his final thoughts on impact: ‘Impact is about changing the world. It’s proof that something has changed regardless of whether it is local or international. A paper by itself will typically sit in someone’s repository, and/or on an online publisher site and it might receive a few citations but it will not change the world. Impact will. If that paper gets picked up and used to realise a tangible benefit to society, the economy or the environment, that’s changing the world.’

It is important to exploit impact to its full advantage and to make a compelling case to academics to get involved. Impact asks and challenges researchers to look beyond the benefits to academia. It requires a pool of researchers, resources, collaborators and a desire to make an impact outside of a laboratory or a publication.

ARMA_2016_Session_ReportThe ripple effect considers how one action has subsequent influence elsewhere. The impact agenda is about harnessing those ripples to make research waves instead.

By Dr Karl Smith, London South Bank University and Chelsea Nattriss, Idox

Looking for further information?
Download the full ARMA Session Report here.

About Dr Karl M Smith

Dr Smith has extensive experience in research project management and applying to and delivering on a number of EU and UK funded projects. He is expert in navigating the funding landscape, especially how to access the right funds, from the right source, to support work with real-world impact. In his capacity as Research Impact Manager at London South Bank University, he recognises that the key to impact is knowledge translation, which is often dependent upon sourcing funding from industry to enable the successful commercialisation of a product or spin-out.

Follow Dr Smith at: @KarlMSmith

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