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Six lessons for first-class impact

Impact is not about changing the world in a single project, says Julie Bayley, winner of the ARMA 2015 Research Impact Award.

Sitting down to plan impact can feel like stepping into a first-class train carriage for the first time; not quite knowing what to do, trying to avoid accidental faux pas, and attempting to display enough gravitas to convincingly belong.

The introduction of impact to the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014) compounded this by rapidly shifting expectations for ‘real world effects’ from applied research to all academic areas. 

While universities have been galvanised into developing more strategic approaches to impact, researchers still face the challenge of establishing meaningful and achievable impact paths for their own work. Watching how people enter the impact carriage is telling. I’ve had people in tears because they feel so completely underequipped to plan impact with something as important as a grant at stake.

I’ve had others bluntly assert their personal exemption because impact is what ‘other people do’.

So if you’re facing an impact blank page, I’d suggest—alongside talking to impact specialists in your institution and using online resources—you take a step back and think about the following.

1 How to connect to a (the) bigger problem

All too often we assume, because we ourselves are so invested in the topic, that the need for the research is obvious. But it’s vital to fully outline the related non-academic problem and articulate how the project contributes towards a change. Be clear on the direct results (which you can create) and how these may enable longer-term benefits (which you can’t guarantee but you can make a realistic prospect).

2 How to connect with the real world

For research to escape academic captivity, you need to escape too. Build links (networks) with those who can shape, advise or use your research from early in the process. There’s no surer-fire way of annoying the pants off a potential beneficiary than rocking up at the end of the project to tell them what they need. And no, in this context, academics do not count as real world people. However lovely they are.

3 Lose your inner diva: or how do your activities connect with your impact goals?

One of the easiest traps to fall into is to name-drop, jargon-drop or be so devoid of sufficient detail that you expect the panel to accept that impact will happen simply because you’re awesome. Phrases such as ‘the team comprises well-respected experts’ may offer credibility to the project, but they do not deliver the realism and achievability needed for impact plans. Similarly, broad statements such as ‘We will run workshops with users’ convey little more than ‘We know real people should be spoken to and we know where there’s a room available.’ All it means is that you have a context that is conducive to impact. It says precisely nothing about what you’ll actually do or, crucially, why.

The reviewer needs to be assured that you have purposefully chosen activities, so express your reasoning: ‘The team comprises well-respected experts, which allows us to draw on a series of established networks’, and ‘To engage our user demographic and gather vital feedback on implementation plans, we will run workshops with users.’ It makes all the difference.

4 Connect with people who’ll challenge you

Impact needs critical friends—colleagues and interested parties—who will force you to think beyond the academic merit of the work. Impact isn’t about grandiose narratives: it’s about understanding what people need and designing achievable routes to get there. Find people who’ll make you justify your plans.

5 Connect the change to the measure

Planning the evidence of impact is far easier when you know what kind of changes you’re looking for. At the start think through

(i) what you want to/think will change

(ii) how you will know a change has happened

(iii) how you could measure or qualify it, and

(iv) what evidence you could get to prove it

It will make your life a lot easier.

6 Connect your aims with those of the funders

Don’t forget the funder’s aims, especially when you’re rushing to meet a deadline. They’re crucial to connecting your project with the bigger (and often impact-focused) aims of the funder/scheme. Go check.

Remember—impact can’t be ‘templated’ or prescribed. Go back to the reason why your project is important. Your efforts in the research stage can really help improve someone’s life, even if it’s several steps in the future. And don’t worry, everyone in first class has been a first-timer.

Julie Bayley is a former Coventry University impact officer. A full-length version of this article has been published in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight