Monday, 22 May 2017

The Three Rules of Impact

The Award Winning Julie Bayley
Two years ago we held the first of our 'Maximising Impact' events. Shortly after, we invited the Award Winning Julie Bayley (Coventry) to talk us about 'what works' when it comes to impact. Julie has a refreshingly open and approachable take on impact, and listening to her speak gives hope to all who are confused and intimidated by impact.

Last Wednesday we held the second 'Maximising Impact' event, and it made sense to have Julie speak to us again. This time she built on what she'd said before by setting out three basic rules of impact.

Defining Impact

She started by making clear what impact is, and what it is not. Impact hasn't changed in the last two years, so she reiterated her point from 2015: 'impact is the provable benefits of research in the real world.'

This was intentionally a shorthand definition of impact, but she explained that for those working in some areas of academia they need to explore how this best fits their field.  For instance, fundamental research often starts an 'impact marathon', with real world effects happening far into the future and through a series of academic baton passes.  

Similarly arts and humanities researchers often struggle to 'prove' their effect, and may need to combine a range of measures to demonstrate their story. In both cases Julie suggested looking through the REF impact database as a first port of call to see what kind of impact has previously been achieved.

However, broadly for the purposes of the REF, impact is:
  • underpinned by excellent research 
  • a change in something beyond academia, and can include policy change, an increase in effectiveness, improved wellbeing, or reduced costs
  • demonstrated with evidence
  • achievable through partnership, collaboration and engagement.

The flip side of this are all the things that REF impact is not. This includes:
  • dissemination
  • media activity
  • the pathway by which you achieve impact (eg an exhibition) rather than the effect of that pathway

Most importantly, it should not be prioritised over research, or seen as separate from it. For research council impact, things tend to be less clear cut. Impact is more broadly understood, and can include academic impact. 

Julie had done a considerable amount of work in looking at REF case studies. There were a number of common attributes that the most successful ones shared. These included:

  • they made clear that the research had had higher reach and significance
  • they demonstrated clear, unambiguous and unidirectional impact
  • they used active, causative language, using such words as 'enabled' and 'resulted in'. 'Passive language in impact is the worst thing you can do,' suggested Julie.
  • they used scale and metrics to back up their claims
  • they used clear uptake mechanisms to ensure a wider adoption of outcomes
  • they were strategic
  • and there was a clear sense that impact is only made possible because of the underlying research.

Planning and Creating Impact

Following this, Julie sketched out some basic rules for planning and creating impact. She reemphasised the point that impact is integral to a project, and not a bolt on or after thought. Moreover, it is specific to a project and cannot be templated. However, that does not mean that you shouldn't make the most of opportunities when they arise, and both Prof Theresa Gannon, Nikki Shaughnessy and Melissa Trimingham had made this point when describing their projects in the earlier plenary. But many assume that impact will just happen, and it's very easy to default to generic outputs and pathways. 

Rule 1: Think First!

Essentially, you need to start at the end point. What effects do you want to achieve from your impact? Who do you want to influence? What do you want to change? And when? How will you know when it has happened? 

Keep in mind this end goal, and give some thought to whether it is possible. Are you asking too much? You shouldn't overpromise: assessors sniff this out quite quickly. You need to present realistic, achievable and above all measureable impact. 

Julie gave some useful questions to consider, including; 
  • what impact is realistic within the projects timeframe?
  • how will it be facilitated by your outputs?
  • what is the audience?
  • what will you need to do in order to adapt outputs for specific audiences?
  • what resources will you need to realise your impact? 
  • how will you track impact and demonstrate its achievement?
  • and how will you ensure the appropriate scale for your impact (eg local, national, European or global)?

Rule 2: Map It

Once you have a good sense of what impact you want to achieve, in what timeframe, and with what audience, you can start to map it. You have to pin down the detail. Generics are good enough. Julie suggested that you map this out, starting at the end point. Thus, on one side you might have research, and on the other the impact 'destinations' that you hope to reach. Work back from these destinations to understand what steps you need to take. 

She gave an example of a research project that she had been involved in, around sexual health. To achieve the particular goal - in this case opportunistic chlamydia testing - the project hoped to achieve three broad impact goals: policy change, improved access to services and (thereby) reduced rates of infection. Each of these required the team to think about what they would need to achieve those, who they need to engage, and through what channels. 

This may be harder than it looks, but try and break it down further. In order to achieve change, think about stakeholders and where they're coming from. Will they be interested in the research already? If not, how can you 'translate' the research so that it interests them. Try to involve them from the start, and don't assume the value of the project is a given. 

Throughout this process think about how you capture and demonstrate impact. For this, there are four key questions: 
  • What changes? 
  • How will you know?
  • How could you most appropriately 'prove' it?
  • How will you record it?
The evidence can take many forms, such as testimonials, data, awards, patents, policy citation, practitioner guidance change or organisational reports. 

Rule 3: Think, Plan, Write

The final rule reinforces the previous steps. Only start writing your impact once you've fully thought about it and planned it. Julie finished with some dos and don'ts.
  • Do: 
    • identify a clear problem and the contribution your project will make to resolving it;
    • use active language and structure
    • involve stakeholders from an early stage
    • justify the scale 
    • set out clear paths, methods and dependencies
    • set out a clear timescale
    • be realistic
  • Don't:
    • rely on passive dissemination and academic routes
    • be vague and woolly, or use passive language (eg 'it is hoped')
    • assume readers accept that the research will solve the problem
    • be non-directional or 'scattergun'
    • give unjustified paths
    • be arrogant, or assume past glories or associations are enough. 
For more help and advice on impact talk to Betty Woessner and the REF and Impact team at the University. I'm incredibly grateful to them for organising the Maximising Impact event, and for inviting Julie and all the speakers to take part in the event. It was both inspiring and useful, and helped all those who attended to better understand what impact is, and how their research can achieve it. 


  1. This is just how I remember it. Brilliant - I will share this with my collages in Denmark.

    1. Excellent! I'm glad I captured the flavour and the message of it! Do feel free to share!

  2. Thank you! This illustrates how to get "from a promise of relevance, towards a practice of impact creation".
    Some footnotes, for those outside of the UK and not subject to REF.
    In some countries, such as the Netherlands, there is more attention for the process leading towards an impact. Given that the demonstrable impact might occur long after the research has been done.
    Also, there is more attention for impact other than related to excellent research. For instance, impact related
    to the expertise of a researcher (see for instance chapter 2 in And impact based on good (though not excellent, 4 star) research. This might be inherent to some research practices that lead towards impact, such as inter- or transdisciplinary research. This is, unfortunatley, often not recognized as excellent.
    But again, these are just footnotes.

    1. That's really useful, Leonie, and provides good perspective. Thank you!

    2. I love 'promise of relevance'! And really great to see broader approaches to impact - thank you for adding such detail..

      Interestingly Canada also focuses more on the process of impact (see eg. rather than the demonstrable effects, and it's fascinating to see what challenges and opportunities both afford. The international comparisons really help us challenge simplistic views of what impact is and how it is best approached.

      Impact is cool :-)

    3. We're *trying* in Canada to match up the two ends of impact so that they meet in the middle in a constructive and useful way. I think we're allowed 17 years to achieve it ;)