UK research councils are committed to excellent research which impacts on our economic and social wellbeing. The research councils require all funding applications to be supported by a clear and detailed Pathways to Impact statement, which explains how all the activities of the reseach cycle will increase the likelihood of the intended impact. The impact summary and Pathways to Impact statement in research applications give you the opportunity to show how your research may make a difference, and what you plan to do to help achieve this. Impact generating activities do not start after the research is conducted – on the contrary – researchers are encouraged to engage with potential users of their research from the earliest stages - when designing the research and developing the application, through to disseminating the results and communicating the importance of the evidence.
What is impact?
The research councils define impact as follows:
The demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to academic advances, across and within disciplines, including significant advances in understanding, methods, theory and application.
When applying for Research Council funding via Je-S, pathways towards academic impact are expected to be outlined in the Academic Beneficiaries and appropriate Case for Support sections. An exception to this is where academic impact forms part of the critical pathway to economic and societal impact.
Economic and societal impacts
The demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy. Economic and societal impacts embrace all the extremely diverse ways in which research-related knowledge and skills benefit individuals, organisations and nations by:
- fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom,
- increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy,
- enhancing quality of life, health and creative output.
The role of public engagement
UK research councils are clear on the value of public engagement and the role that it can play as a pathway to impact. Guidance from RCUK states:
"Public engagement may be included as one element of your Pathway to Impact. Engaging the public with your research can improve the quality of research and its impact, raise your profile, and develop your skills. It also enables members of the public to act as informed citizens and can inspire the next generation of researchers."
Guidelines and approach
The application requires you to reflect on impact in two sections, an Impact Summary, and a two page attachment called Pathways to Impact. The Impact Summary is aimed at the public domain and should provide a short description of who you think may be interested in the research and how they will benefit. In the Pathways to Impact statement you outline what you will do to make beneficiaries aware of the research so that impact can be achieved. Research Councils have helpful guidance on the types of impact they recognize and how to structure your Impact statement. They also provide a number of Pathways to Impact case studies which provide guidance, top tips and best practice for helping researchers to realise the impact of their research.
Instead of repeating this guidance, we focus here on questions to think about when including Public Engagement as a pathway to impact.
Who is your target audience?
Be specific as you can here. Instead of saying “the general public” try to break down your audience into particular interest groups or segments of society to which this research is relevant or likely to appeal. Rather than “policy makers and practitioners” indicate in which policy or practice areas your research will be relevant and show that you know who (which organisations and institutions) are involved in and influence that area. Find out more about understanding audiences.
How will they benefit?
How will your research contribute to economic or social development, increase understanding and engagement with culture and science, or improve quality of life? Grand questions, but you need to show how your work has the potential to make a difference, albeit on a small scale. What new insights will your beneficiaries gain and how can they put the outcome of the research into use? What current or emerging debates does your research contribute to?
How to engage and when?
Depending on who your target audience is, it may be useful to identify intermediary organisations to work with to link with a wider audience. This can be a museum or gallery if you want to engage with members of the public, local authorities if you want to access several schools, professional associations if you want to access practitioners, governmental bodies or NGOs if you want to feed into policy and/or engage in public debates. It is useful to identify specific organisations or groups at the early stages, as you develop the application as they are likely to have good tips on how to engage with their particular audience. They may also to help ensure you address questions of relevance to the sector.
What activities should I use?
The activities you choose obviously depend on the nature of the research and what you want to achieve, but a combination of dissemination and more active engagement is recommended. This can be in the form of printed material, online activities and face-to-face meetings. Consider which existing arenas you can use to access your target group before trying to get them to come to you. For example it may be more effective to ask to give a talk at an existing conference or meeting than asking the same people to come for a separate workshop at the University. If you have made the effort to come to them they are also more likely to come to you at a later stage.
When building an engagement strategy you should try to build in multiple activities that feed into one another to achieve the highest possible impact. So for example, findings published in an academic journal may at the same time be broadcast in the media, written up in a four-page briefing paper, launched with an event, which is publicized widely through social media such as Twitter. The level of engagement is likely to be higher if the target audience already know that this research is happening, so even before you have findings to communicate it is a good idea to attend relevant events, talk about your plans, and contribute to debates to increase the profile of the work you do.
How you will use available support?
The RCUK guidance recommends seeking advice on the impact statement from knowledge transfer or public engagement officers in your University. Likewise, show in the statement itself that you will seek advice on appropriate ways of engaging throughout the project, for example by working with the press office in relation to media. RCUK values capacity building in public engagement so please show how you and other researchers involved will gain new skills to support your work, either through doing public engagement in practice and/or conducting courses or attending training in public engagement.
How will you capture the impact you have?
While the application stage is about outlining possible pathways to impact, as part of reporting during and after your grant you will have to report on actual achieved outcomes. Note that it is important to think beyond the activities themselves, to what those activities actually achieved – what difference it made to those participating and the areas they work in. Research Councils appreciate that whilst it is your responsibility to make your research available to relevant users, you have little control with whether they actually use it and what for. Hence you will not be punished if you are not able to show impact. However, anything you can demonstrate is positive, so make sure any impacts throughout and after the project is captured.
Reports in media, documents that refer to your research, feedback from events or people who have read your work should all be kept.
- All impact generating activity, including public engagement must be linked directly to the research you apply to conduct. Generic public engagement with science is not appropriate in this context.
- Engagement with the general public is good, but RCUK would like to see more engagement with users of research, i.e. people who can utilise research to improve policies, services and processes.
- If you claim potential impact on policy or practice, you must demonstrate that you understand how change is made in your area. Your research identifying a problem does not in itself change policy!
- Do show that you have a track-record in public engagement, but the focus should be on future activities linked to this particular project, not past achievements.
- It may be easier to think of Pathways to Impact if you link this to milestones within the project and tailor activities linked to each deliverable.
- Make sure all impact generating activities within the lifetime of the project is costed, but also make sure you don’t cost things that should be covered by the indirect costs the University receives as part of the grant. Seek advice from your research support officers on this.
- No impact? For some “blue skies” theoretical research it may be hard to imagine any non-academic impact within foreseeable future. This is fine. However, before you use the option of explaining why your research won’t have impact, please consider whether there are 1) ways you can engage with special interest groups through for example magazines, talks in societies, festivals, or through social media groups and 2) ways you can engage with other more applied disciplines who may be able to take the insights from your project further.