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Three steps to increase research impact

Titus Alexander of Democracy Matters suggests how practical politics can increase the impact of research.
This article is more than 6 years old

Titus Alexander is the founder of Democracy Matters.

Universities will need to develop skills in influencing to increase their impact scores in the 2021 Research Excellence Framework assessment.

Outstanding research does not have an impact by itself. Countless studies showed that smoking, sugar, and greenhouse gases cause significant harm – but their impact was reduced by active opposition from commercial interests. Only when campaigners used this research to influence policy did it have any impact.

It is no longer enough to be widely cited in your discipline. Research has to change or benefit “activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding” among a wider audience. Impact is defined as an “effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. This includes economic benefits, as well as reducing or preventing “harm, risk, cost or other negative effects”.

Teaching counts where its impact extends significantly beyond the institution, through a community of practice or extra-mural education. Impact can also come from working with local communities or public services to solve problems, or working with charities, journalists or policymakers to tackle national or international issues.

Universities must submit at least two impact case studies in each of up to 34 subject areas where they do research (“units of assessment”). The number of case studies required depends on the number of researchers, e.g. 10 case studies for 160 FTE staff (see REF2021 Decisions on staff and outputs para. 41). These will now jointly account for a quarter of their university’s score, so impact will be a growing consideration for researchers.

Demonstrating impact on this scale will be a culture change for many academics. Achieving impact is also messier than writing a paper for publication or a conference, but it can be much more satisfying and rewarding to see your research make a difference to people’s lives. Influencing policy and practice is more difficult than solving a problem on paper, but engaging with policymakers and the public will also increase the depth and breadth of research. Showing the difference your research makes will also make your department more attractive to students and funders.

How to increase impact

Three crucial steps can amplify the impact of research:   

1) Find out who can use your findings

Researchers need to start by asking ‘who in the world needs what I study?’ and then involve them in framing research questions. When you address a concern, interest or problem in the wider world, you have a ready audience for your findings. Knowing who can use your work is almost halfway to achieving impact because they will spread the word to bring about change.  

2) Strengthen relationships beyond the academy

You need to know who decides how research is adopted, ignored or suppressed in your field. You can only learn this by being involved and working with people who use your subject outside academia, including informal networks, non-governmental organisations, businesses, and policymakers on all sides of any relevant issue. Relationships with practitioners and policymakers can also bring valuable new knowledge, attract additional research funds, and provide a platform to promote your research beyond academia.

3) Develop communication and influencing skills

Researchers need to develop communication and influencing skills to make their findings accessible. If you have defined your research topics with people who can use it, they will amplify its impact. But you need to present findings in ways that can be shared more widely. Policymakers like to know there is rigorous, peer-reviewed evidence behind your case, but they also need is a catchy phrase, story or graph to give it impact. For example, evidence that $1 invested in Head Start generates returns (ROI) of $7 to $9 has been used to increase funding for early years and parenting education in America, improving the life chances of millions of children.

Having impact can create controversy, as over climate change, obesity, or Cambridge Analytica’s use of research data to target voters on Facebook. This shows the importance of an effective ethical framework and respect for evidence, as outlined in my book on teaching practical politics. But opposition and controversy will also increase the impact of your findings, so be prepared and welcome it.

Impact is about practical politics

Achieving impact is, above all, an exercise in practical politics. Senior academics have always used their connections, status, and expertise to influence public affairs, but when every researcher is expected to have an impact, everyone needs to learn how to have influence.

Practical politics can be taught, like business, law, and other applied disciplines. It does not mean becoming partisan, but it does mean being aware of the political dimensions of your subject and using knowledge to help people improve policy and practice. Aristotle called politics the ‘master subject’ because it sets priorities for everything else. For Aristotle, the aim of politics was to obtain “the highest of all goods achievable” and create a good society. That is a noble goal for research impact.

Join the movement for research impact

The government’s commitment to research impact is creating a lively community of practitioners, blogs and consultancies dedicated to improving impact, as part of a worldwide movement.

Here’s my starter for ten of useful resources to increase your impact.

  1. Find or create a support network to improve impact on public policy in your area. If your institution doesn’t do it, lobby the VC to invest in it and learn from universities which help academics engage with public policy, such as the universities of Bath, Cambridge, Durham, East Anglia, LSE, Nottingham, Oxford, Sheffield, Southampton, Sussex and UCL.
  2. Attend a regional training event for academic researchers run by the UK Parliament, or use a guide to policy impact, such as Cambridge or Nottingham and run seminars or action learning workshops in your department or institution to develop influencing ability, and invite speakers with experience of policy making to share inside knowledge.
  3. Find or create a support for work with local communities, such as the University of Brighton Community University Partnership Programme (CUPP), University of East London Civic Engagement, Manchester’s Public Engagement Programme and other Beacons for public engagement. Explore the potential of service learning in your subject.
  4. Professor Alberto Alemanno created The Good Lobby Advocacy School for citizens to learn how to create change by lobbying (his 2017 book Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society is a useful toolkit for impact).
  5. The ESRC offers funding and support for public engagement
  6. Impact Boom is an international network of academics, practitioners, thinkers and doers creating positive social and environmental change.
  7. The LSE Impact Blog is an active and useful forum.
  8. Fast Track Impact has a useful blog and training about impact.
  9. UK Research Councils offer practical advice on maximising impact.
  10. The United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI), seeks to align institutions of higher education and research with the UN system, informed by ten basic principles.

Professor Duncan Green’s course on Advocacy, campaigning, and grassroots activism at LSE introduces students to analytical frameworks and practical techniques used by international organisations to influence political, social, and economic policy and practice. One day every university department will offer courses like this, tailor-made for their discipline, to give students and researchers the ability to use their knowledge to benefit humanity.

Titus Alexander’s book Practical Politics: lessons in power and democracy (UCL IOE Press 2017) shows why and how researchers, teachers and leaders in education need to include practical politics on the curriculum. Educators can get inspection copies here and anybody can download free extracts.


11 responses to “Three steps to increase research impact

  1. You say that “All staff with “significant responsibility” for research must submit at least one impact case study, which will jointly account for a quarter of their university’s score, so that impact will be a major issue for all researchers (guidance to be complete by Summer 2018).”

    This is incorrect. Case studies are submitted by the unit of assessment, with two for the first 20 members of staff, then then one for every additional 15. For very large units the ratio is decreased further, so there could be as few as one case study for up to 30 members of staff.

    For many members of staff it will absolutely be enough to be widely cited in their discipline, and rightly so. Impact must be built on the value of excellent research. Impact is increasingly important, but research comes first – that’s the whole point.

  2. Thanks for the clarification about ‘units of assessment’ for case studies, but impact is still more important than in the REF14. Of course excellent research must be the foundation, and impact may take years or even decades to have impact. But citation alone is not evidence of impact – it may mean good networking and promotional skills or prestige in your field.
    Research does not come first – it comes after you’ve framed a research question. Excellent research about irrelevant or insignificant topics is less valuable. The most cited scientific paper of all time is not the most significant.

  3. 4) Universities must demonstrate commitment to impact in their own strategy, organization and activity.. That is, their organizational processes and strategies must be research led.

    At the moment, the sector is telling the world, ‘do as we say, but don’t do as we do’

    It is astonishing the extent to which policy and practice in this massive sector, which exhorts its staff to deliver impactful research, conducts itself in ways contradicted by empirical research, and uses internal research processes which are unethical, badly designed, and conducted by unqualified staff. One example: the management of high performance, high commitment organizations requires, the evidence shows, trust, and leadership by those with high task competence. Both are, by and large, absent. See also, a range of HR practices; the conduct of staff and student surveys; the conduct of course evaluations; the absence of tracer studies; the impact of timetabling on learning; the impact (especially) of group size and affiliation on learning. The distortions of metrics. The impossibilities of performance related pay. And so on.

  4. Thank you for your article. You might note however (quoting from paragraph 21 of “Initial Decisions of the Research Excellence Framework” published September 2017 REF 2017/01) “The guidance on submitting impacts on teaching will be widened to include impacts within, as well as beyond, the submitting institution.”

  5. Thanks for this piece. For those of us who focus on subjects and research communities based outside of the UK, the impact aspect is frustrating because it seems only work that has domestic UK impact will be recognised. This UK focus implicitly goes against the stated global reach of research.

  6. Hi, In fact researchers based in the UK often try hard to ensure that impact from there research does occur outside the UK! There is a belief among some researchers that they should strive for impact beyond the UK. That’s not to undermine impact within the UK but if impact can be extended to other countries too, the reach, and possibly significance, should also be increased. It’s all about reach and significance for the REF.

  7. A wise point, Bill, with profound implications: if universities do not use research to improve their own performance, how can they expect anyone else to use research?
    People in organisations are motivated my many things, but reason and evidence are always servants of other purposes – it will be used, if it supports a prior objective (status, money, power, –). Influencing or running any organisation requires political skill, “office politics”, which are more important in practice than all other politics, as I argue in my book (see
    Perhaps influencing the university to adopt sane management practices would be a worth objective to show “impacts within, as well as beyond, the submitting institution.” But quite a challenge.

  8. So what we need ae many more tick-box-bot binary thinking, metric obsessed, bonus chasing managerialists from sausage factores to run our universities into the ground.

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