How to have REF-able policy impact

It is often said that policy impact is one of the riskier impacts to attempt if you are an academic looking to make a difference with your research. It is hard to control, it may be a result of serendipity, and it is not particularly easy to measure or evidence.

When it came to documenting parliamentary impact in REF 2014 case studies, it seems that much of the sector felt they were grappling in the dark. You might think this meant universities avoided submitting parliamentary impact stories; however, that’s not so. One in five impact case studies mentioned substantive engagement with Parliament, and studies came from all 36 research areas, including 88% of universities.

Despite the surprisingly central position of parliamentary impact in REF 2014, research users in UK Parliament are aware of the challenges of achieving and demonstrating policy impact. We also know that academics sometimes perceive barriers to engaging with Parliament, including lack of recognition or valuing of input.

Yet UK Parliament really needs and values academic research, and so we want to support academics in getting your research into Parliament and in getting the recognition you deserve for your input. We want to reduce the perceived risks around parliamentary impact, and to help make it easier to illustrate where the work of academics has made a change. For these reasons, the UK Parliament, along with the devolved administrations (Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly), has been working with those involved in planning and delivering REF 2021.

A shared understanding

We have been working with Research England for over a year to help ensure a shared understanding of what parliamentary impact is and how it can be evidenced in REF 2021. Last spring, those involved in the delivery of REF 2021 asked us to produce a briefing for them explaining both what is useful and impactful for legislatures, and how engagement and impact can be evidenced. The briefing proved useful and fed directly into the drafting of guidelines and panel criteria.

Research England and panel members have taken onboard a number of the points we made in our briefing, which now feature in the final Panel Criteria and Working Methods. These points are found in Annex A: Examples of impacts and indicators.

As for what constitutes parliamentary impact, we all agree that:

  • Research is used by parliamentarians to develop proposals for new legislation through Private Members’ Bills, or to assist scrutiny of legislation and inform amendments to other bills such as those introduced by government.
  • Research helps to highlight issues of concern to parliamentarians and contributes to new analysis of existing issues.
  • Research helps parliamentarians and staff to identify inquiry topics, shape the focus of inquiries, inform questioning of witnesses, and underpin recommendations.
  • Research equips parliamentarians, their staff, and legislative staff with new analytical or technical skills, or refreshes existing ones.

As for indicators of reach and significance, there is a shared understanding that this can be evidenced through:

  • Direct citations of research in parliamentary publications such as Hansard, committee reports, evidence submissions, or briefings.
  • Acknowledgements to researchers on webpages, in reports or briefings.
  • Quantitative indicators or statistics on the numbers of attendees or participants at a research event, or website analytics for online briefings.
  • Qualitative feedback from participants or attendees at research events.
  • Data to show close working relationships with Members or staff, for example, the number of meetings held, minutes from these meetings, membership of working groups, co-authoring of publications.
  • Testimonials from members, committees or officials, where available.
  • Analysis by third-party organisations of parliamentary proceedings or processes, for example studies of the passage of particular pieces of legislation.

We are also delighted to see that those administering REF 2021 took on our suggestion (and perhaps that of others too) that certain kinds of impact only acknowledged in panel C in the draft guidelines will now be valued by all panels:

The panels acknowledge that there may be impacts arising from research which take forms such as holding public or private bodies to account or subjecting proposed changes in society, public policy, business practices, and so on to public scrutiny. Such holding to account or public scrutiny may have had the effect of a proposed change not taking place; there may be circumstances in which this of itself is claimed as an impact. There may also be examples of research findings having been communicated to, but not necessarily acted upon, by the intended audience, but which nevertheless make a contribution to critical public debate around policy, social or business issues. The panels also recognise that research findings may generate critique or dissent, which itself leads to impact(s). For example, research may find that a government approach to a particular social, health, food-/ biosecurity or economic issue is not delivering its objectives, which leads to the approach being questioned or modified.

Although the research community still struggles at times to agree a definition of impact and, of course, impact is not just “that which is REF-able”, it is our aim that these guidelines will provide clarity in an area of impact that the sector is still getting to grips with. We hope that this shared understanding will mitigate perceived risks, increase confidence in writing parliamentary impact narratives and, at the end of the day, lead to more research getting into Parliament.

You can find out more about how the UK Parliament uses research and how to have an impact with yours on Parliament’s research impact hub. You can also stay up-to-date on opportunities, information and advice on working with Parliament as a researcher by following UK Parliament’s Knowledge Exchange Unit on Twitter: @UKParl_Research.

2 responses to “How to have REF-able policy impact

  1. This is a very narrow definition of policy impact. Much of the work carried by universities and other research organisations that has direct policy impact comes about from work commissioned by govt departments and agencies, nothing to with Parliament. Big part of our 2014 REF submission in Education and will be the basis of 5 Impact Case Studies in 2021 that will demonstrate high levels of impact on both institutional policy and practice. Measuring policy impact just by interactions with Parliament – much of it mere lobbying at select committees – just panders to the depressing elitist focus of much HE discourse in this country.

  2. There is an arguable case about whether contacts with Parliament that do not have direct effects on government and agencies’ actual policies and practices really should count as impact. But Colin McCaig’s response seems to deny the possibility of ‘history from the middle’ if not ‘history from below’ in the implication that contact with MPs outside of a government institutional focus are pointless. Is this not more elitist (if also more impactful) than the (Sarah, not Richard) Foxen article?

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