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Public engagement and pathways to impact


When the Government invest in research, it is with the understanding that excellent research contributes to the economy, culture and social wellbeing of society; that it makes a difference. With increased competition for public funding, it is more important to demonstrate what this difference actually entails. The impact sections in the research application 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 already when developing the application, and continue the engagement throughout.

It is important to note that academic excellence still remains the main criteria for Research Councils – they are not going to support mediocre research with high impact!

Guidelines and approach

The application requires you to reflect on impact in two sections, an Impact Summary in the form 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 Pathways to Impact 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 as well as how you may structure your Impact statement. We will not repeat this, but focus on some questions you may think about when you include Public Engagement as pathways to impact.

Who might be interested – who is your target audience?

Please be as specific as you can here. Rather than “the general public” indicate 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.

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 like 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 such organisations already as you develop the application as they are likely to have good tips on what will make their particular audience engage. They may also to help ensure you address questions of relevance to the sector. As the applicant you still have to make sure you have the control of the research and that it fulfils the academic ambitions important both to you and the Research Councils.

What activities should I use?

This obviously depends 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 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 making the same people come for a separate workshop at the University. If you have showed 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 activities on each other 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 conducted. So even before you have findings to communicate it is a good idea to attend relevant events and contribute to debates to increase the profile of the work you do.

Show 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. This includes 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 either through doing public engagement in practice and/or conducting courses in public engagement. This is particularly important for researchers as transferrable skills like this makes them more employable also if they choose to seek careers outside academia.

Capturing impact

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. Make sure events and other activities are evaluated, please see the NCCPE Briefing Paper on evaluating public engagement.

Top tips

  • Pathways to Impact have been part of RCUK applications since spring 2009, and these are some recommendations based on the experiences of the first year:
  • 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.

External Links

The RCUK toolkit for impact provides detailed guidance and tips. The site also provides links to each of the Research Council’s own interpretations and guidance on impact.

The ESRC pathways to impact toolkit includes information on developing an impact strategy, promoting knowledge exchange, public engagement and communicating effectively with your key stakeholders. It is aimed particularly at Social Scientists.


Dr Anne Sofie Laegran, Knowledge Exchange Manager

College of Humanities and Social Sciences University of Edinburgh, 1-7 Roxburgh Street, Edinburgh EH8 9TA

0131 6514203