What is research impact and why is it so important?

rachel oldroyd

Rachel Oldroyd, UK Data Service Data Impact Fellow and Quantitative Human Geographer at the University of Leeds, shares her perspective on research impact.

Impact – a word that is used so frequently in academic and non-academic circles alike, but what is it and why is it so important? With so many definitions, the meaning varies greatly across institutions and disciplines, but there seems to be a certain agreement around one broad definition. Impact is the effect that research has beyond academia. Whether that’s how the understanding of a complex social theory affects policy and improves community life, or how a newly developed vaccine reduces the spread of disease among a population. Impact is certainly not a new concept, however its incorporation into the 2020 Research Excellence Framework (REF) has initiated a shift away from pure research excellence towards a focus on research dissemination and the effect on wider society.

Certain channels of dissemination are frequently used by academics; presenting at national and international conferences, publishing in academic journals and delivering research group seminars. Early career researchers soon realise that these activities are not really optional, participation is encouraged and expected during the life course of a PhD and beyond. But these activities are often not enough to create tangible impact. They have limited reach, restricted to academic audiences. So what can early career researchers do to increase the impact of their research and engage non-academic audiences?

I’m certainly no expert on the topic, I started a part-time PhD just over 18 months ago having spent three years as a teaching fellow at the University of Leeds. Impact was a term I heard frequently in research discussions and meetings, but as I was based in a teaching focussed role, it wasn’t something I had given much thought. However, as I started my research around foodborne illness, I realised the project had potential to make a difference and I began to think about ways in which I could develop impact. I started to identify people that would be affected and the ways in which the findings would be important. I believe identifying key stakeholders at an early stage is an important step in developing an impact journey. Key parties can not only help to disseminate the research beyond academic audiences but they can also provide valuable feedback regarding the research itself.

Stakeholder feedback can help to effectively outline and understand the problem, guide and mould the methodologies and also aid interpretation of results and policy considerations. Involving key parties throughout research development ensures the research remains timely and useful, but stakeholder engagement can often be difficult to establish. Taking advantage of existing contacts and using professional events as opportunities to network are ways in which early career researchers can reach out to key parties. I was particularly interested in talking to my local food safety team, so I sent a speculative email outlining my methodologies and they were happy to meet to start an open ended conversation about the research.

Although starting open-ended research conversations can only be a good thing, stakeholder engagement can bring about new challenges for researchers. Mainly, how to communicate technical theories to public and professional audiences? Explaining complex methodologies to non-academic audiences in an accessible way is often difficult. Although most Universities provide training to support early career researchers engaging stakeholders and the public, it takes much practice. Avoiding complex language and acronyms and focussing on results rather than methodologies are ways in which to make the research more understandable for non-academic audiences. Often public and professional audiences are less concerned with the minutia of the methods and more interested in results, outcomes and policy implications.

Alongside engaging with key stakeholders, developing research awareness is a crucial step in creating research impact. Writing a research blog, presenting at public seminar series, engaging with social media, and running public engagement events such as schools outreach sessions, are excellent ways to increase the visibility and profile of the research. However, life as an early career researcher is busy, and maintaining a balance between activities which promote the research and undertaking the research itself is one of the main challenges in developing impact. Impactful activities certainly shouldn’t detract from research excellence and learning to say no is also a vital skill that early career researchers should learn.

It is important that impact development is considered at all stages of the research so it remains timely, useful and policy relevant. Although the concept of impact isn’t new, as the 2020 REF looms, the emerging trend away from pure research excellence towards research dissemination and measured societal effect will not only demand established academics to change their approach to research, but it will also require an increased level of support for early career researchers entering this new landscape of academia.

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