Fortunately help is at hand: Julie Bayley has developed a national reputation in supporting colleagues in understanding impact at Coventry University, and she accepted our invitation to come to Kent and talk about her experiences.
She started by paring 'impact' back to the basics. 'Impact is, in essence, provable real-world benefit based on research,' she said. Many confuse the communication of research with its impact: it is not about audience figures or visitor numbers. It's not about talking to policy makers. It's not about making documentaries. It's about the effect that all of this interaction and engagement has actually had on society, the economy and public policy.
The key to a successful REF case study - or an RCUK Pathways to Impact statement - is to build a 'strong causative narrative' that shows how your research has led (or will lead) directly to the actual impact. The number of steps between research and impact is not important: what matters is that there is a logical cohesion, a clear thread that links the two.
Some find this thread hard to find. Julie suggested adopting the 'annoying toddler' model for unearthing it. 'You've got to keep asking, 'but why? But why? But why?'' There needs to be a logic to your actions, to the people you are working with, to the work that you're undertaking. Throwing all your research at the public through myriad channels in the hope that something will stick will not lead to effective impact.
If this is still unclear it's worth looking at how others have done it. 'Go to the REF Impact Case Studies Database', she suggested. 'Pick up a 4* case study, and a 1* one. The difference is immediately apparent. Once seen, you can't unsee it.'
Julie finished with six key points for ensuring that your research has effective impact:
- engage with stakeholders from the start. Look for paths and court relationships, and don't leave it until the end and 'cold call' hopeful leads.
- messages are key. Keep your message simple and short: your research needs to be clear, and the potential impact obvious.
- translate documents and don't assume that the value of work is seen by the audience. Similarly, you shouldn't expect non-academics to wade through the underlying research and the dense academic articles that explain it. You need to develop the ability to act as middleman and translator, explaining the relevance of the research and how it can be applied to the stakeholders' fields.
- Be visible (but don't assume this means you need to be accessible at all times).
- Monitor the effects, and record how your research is noticed, taken up and used.
- Capture evidence of change. This is crucial in the REF era: you need to gather corroborating evidence that will back up your claims.