Getting Started with Impact: Tips for Early Project Planning

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Guest blog by Gemma Scott, Impact Development Officer, College of Social Sciences

‘Impact’ is increasingly shaping the landscape of academic research in the UK and beyond. The Research Excellence Framework has increased the weighting of its impact component, so that it in 2021 impact case studies will count for a quarter of the overall assessment. If you submit an application for Research Council funding, you will need to set out how you plan to take that research beyond academia in a ‘pathways to impact’ statement. Universities are investing significantly in this area, seeking to drive impactful research cultures through additional funding, resources and the creation of new posts specifically to support impact work (posts such as my own role, as Impact Development Officer for the College of Social Sciences).

Whether you are well versed in the impact agenda or just starting to think about the impact of your research, early planning is key to realising and maximising its potential impact. Here are a few things to consider at the start of any project:

Identify the change you hope to achieve. The requirement to formulate a ‘pathways to impact’ statement for Research Council funding means we often think about ways to reach and engage with non-academic audiences when planning research projects. But, we spend less time thinking about what actual impacts or changes we hope that these pathways will result in. At the start of your project identify the changes you are aiming to bring about or contribute to – perhaps you hope to improve productivity in a particular sector, shape professional practice, change a policy, or influence public perception. Then, think about who you need to engage with and what you need to do to bring about these changes. Be clear about the difference between change (impact) and engagement or dissemination (pathways to impact). You might find this impact planning template useful for mapping out your impact goals and your plans to achieve them.

Build in mechanisms to evaluate your impact, and assess whether you achieve these goals. Holding a dissemination event where you present research findings to a non-academic audience and engage with stakeholders appears often in impact planning and ‘pathways to impact’ statements. But, what next? How will you assess whether this has helped bring about the changes you planned, whether your findings have influenced attendees’ understandings or their practice? If you deliver a training programme to staff in an organisation, or provide evidence to a parliamentary select committee, does your engagement stop after this point? When planning these kinds of activities, think about how you might follow up and trace the impact of your engagement, to understand whether your contribution has then shaped policy, debates, or practice. Evaluating your impact is best practice and achieving impact is usually not a linear process of ‘research-engagement-impact’, so evaluation can feed into your ongoing research and help with making the case for future funding. Evaluation is also critical for REF impact case studies, where the impacts submitted for assessment must be demonstrable.

Ensure that your plans are well resourced. Try to make sure that you have adequate funding to carry out and evaluate your planned activities. The participation of stakeholders, users or beneficiaries in your project should be supported by the inclusion of funding for staff and volunteer time and expenses. As well as not being linear, research and impact activities don’t always go as planned. Sometimes what we plan might not come to fruition and there might be unexpected opportunities along the way. If additional opportunities arise, can you make use of internal or external funding to support these? Speak to your College Research Support Office for guidance on funding and producing ‘pathways to impact’ statements.

Make use of available support at the University of Birmingham. Particularly if this is your first venture into impact, it can be daunting. Achieving impact involves engaging with audiences outside of academia including policy makers, businesses, practitioners and the public. There are several teams across the university who can help support and guide you in impact planning, in making these contacts and in presenting your research to a non-academic audience. The Public Engagement with Research team have a wealth of knowledge and ideas about how to reach and communicate effectively with public audiences and the  Business Engagement Team can help create and sustain connections with commercial businesses. The Public Affairs team can help facilitate policy engagement and impact and their policy impact resources are a great place to start if you’re thinking about how to impact on legislative and parliamentary proceedings in the UK or influence international policy.

Impact or Research Development Officers in your School or College, or your College’s Research Planning Partner, can offer support with your impact activities at all stages, from getting started and identifying potential impact from your research and planning activities to achieve this, all the way up to writing a compelling story of impact for a REF case study narrative. Wherever you are at in this process, we want to hear from you.

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