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What does research impact mean ? A dilemma for early career researchers

Samuel Heroy

A critical and relatively new component of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the institution charged with assessing research from Britain’s higher education institutions, is in research impact—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.” In other words, the REF looks to assess what makes your research meaningful to society. How can your work contribute to change? Why should anyone from outside of academia care?   

These questions are central to the future of research, but from the view of an early career researcher (ECR) attempting to design a research plan which is at its core trying to answer an academic question, they can be quite nebulous and difficult to confront in a concrete manner. Moreover, the challenge lies in creating a plan that is sufficiently forthright, meaning you will actually follow it, and daring, actually geared towards real impact rather than just box-ticking.

One might be tempted to assume that designing and executing high quality academic work would be sufficient, and lead to appropriate interest from stakeholders, such as policymakers or practitioners. However, this rather naive strategy assumes that your questions are of actual interest to stakeholders, and furthermore that they are vested enough to trust you, the researcher from the ivory tower of academia, to confront their real-world problems. While there is no one size all blueprint for how to properly plan for impact, experts at least agree that it is essential to have a carefully thought out plan that documents how you will transform your research into real change.

Impact Clinics with mentors 

To address these issues, the PEAK Urban Oxford cohort organized a one-day workshop that paired ECRs from the cohort to a number of guests with impact expertise. These included senior researchers, university and external REF consultants, staff from UK Research and Innovation, and a policy consultant from Oxford Policy Management. In order to make the most of these pairings, ECRs were tasked with summarizing their research plans and plans for impact in a one page document, each of which was sent to their paired guests beforehand. On the day of the event, the ECRs presented these plans in 6 minute presentations which were followed by pooled questions and comments from the guest impact experts. Then, the guests and ECRs were paired for 30 minute critical conversations focusing on the gaps between the presented impact plans and their actualization.

Juan Pablo Orjuela Mendoza, an ECR in Transport Studies, was paired with mobility expert Professor Gina Porter (Durham University, Department of Anthropology) and economist Eduardo Lora (former chief economist of the Inter-American Development Bank, currently associate at Harvard’s Center for International Development). Juan Pablo felt

"It was very useful to be able to have in depth discussions with experts on how to improve our impact strategy. Both of the guests that I spoke with had very useful and complementary inputs and feedback. Eduardo offered a very grounded view of how to engage local authorities and the national government and even managed to put me in touch with someone in London who is doing research with accessibility and women in Medellin. Gina, on the other hand, offered advice on how to have a more successful recruitment process and how to address possible complications that may arise in our workshops. We also had interesting conversations on useful methodologies and how to work towards the continuity of the project beyond our timeline. In general, I received good comments from our plan thus far, but their input has helped to think about details that only experienced voices could have identified.”

Impact across disciplines is different

While we tried to match ECRs with experts that had at least some overlap with their research, we also tried to offer room for interdisciplinary mixing in order to take participants away from the comforts of their own disciplines.

 Yutong Cai, an ECR in the George Institute for Global Health, was paired with one of Oxford’s research impact facilitators Francesca Richards as well as Gina Porter.

While it is interesting, and indeed very encouraging, to hear about their feedback on my plan, I realised that different scientific disciplines have fundamentally different contexts in terms of research impact. In my field of medical science, I think it's extremely difficult, at least in the short term, to measure a ‘change’ on either health policy or practice, as a result of a piece of research. I think also it is key to think about how to make an impact project sustainable in the long term. We should also acknowledge that researchers are often limited both by funding and the necessary local network support.”

Another concern of research impact is that not every party involved will necessarily benefit from impact—sometimes there are winners as well as losers. For instance, my own project is aimed at understanding links between social inequality and transport as well as residential planning. Jim Coleman -urban lead at Oxford Policy Management- reminded me that not all policymakers may see social inequality as a problem, and some may even have vested interest in keeping the status quo. In my own case, I’ve realized I need to have an actionable plan to show stakeholders that increasing the social integration of the city can lead to better matching between workers and firms, increasing overall productivity.

Achieving impact is a difficult but increasingly important element to research. Having an actionable and realistic plan can involve many activities: identifying and networking into relationships with relevant stakeholders to contribute to the design and implementation of the project, developing a pitch or multiple tailored pitches, comprehensive documentation of the work, and of course doing excellent research work in the first place! Our workshop here helped ECRs to develop these plans and identify gaps in our conceptualizations of impact. As we actualize these plans, we will critically examine what features of our plans were helpful and which fell short.