As a new academic year begins, it seems like the perfect time to curate an overdue blog on writing a strong impact summary for research projects.
I have chosen this topic because there are new challenges for researchers to decipher what constitutes impact, particularly from a research funder’s perspective. The impact sections of grant applications can be quite challenging to complete. To help me with this task, Prof Mark Reed, Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation, Newcastle University, who has written extensively on the topic of impact, has graciously agreed to share his insights, resources, and experience.
This blog explains exactly what you need to write in the two separate impact sections in a Research Council bid (your impact summary and your pathway to impact) and applies to the impact sections of grant applications for other funders. As a researcher and evaluator, I spend a significant amount of time writing research proposals as well as undertaking research, in addition to working closely with the organisations who have commissioned the work. These research funders are often different from the Research Councils or Global Challenges Research Fund.
Nonetheless, I am of the view that impact summaries can be beneficial to any research process as well as situating the value of a piece of research right from the beginning. The Suffolk Institute for Social and Economic Research (SISER), under which I house my research projects has a rapidly expanding research and evaluation portfolio. Majority of the projects are externally funded by voluntary sector and public-sector organisations and the diversity of projects offers an opportunity to explore impact summaries for research within different funding contexts. More importantly, the nature of the research being undertaken at SISER lends itself to the community impact agenda at the University of Suffolk.
A strong impact summary and pathway to impact can make the difference between getting funded or not, especially if your application is tied with others in the “danger zone” near the funding cut-off. It is also a useful tool for tracking impact as the project progresses. Part of the problem is that few of us are completely sure we understand what impact is. In his new edition of The Research Impact Handbook, Mark has attempted to simplify things with his own definition:
“Research impact is the good that researchers can do in the world”
Phrased in this way, the task of writing of a strong impact summary and pathway to impact seems a tad bit easier. The next sections below discuss Prof Reed’s insights on the topic…
What should be in my impact summary?
The impact summary is meant to answer just two questions:
1. Who might benefit from this research?
2. How might they benefit from this research?
To answer these questions, all you need to do is to: i) Clearly articulate impact goals (not dissemination or knowledge exchange goals – that’s part of your pathway to impact); and ii) list (and group) your publics and/or stakeholders. The next two sections explain how...
How can I identify powerful impact goals?
Start by identifying clear impact goals, if possible making them as specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound (SMART) as possible.
Try these tips:
- Visualise yourself at the end of your project having achieved an impact that everyone is talking about. Where are you and what can you see? What has changed? What are people saying about how they have benefited?
- Make sure your impact goals aren’t simply about communicating your research findings
- If they are, then ask yourself who is most likely to be interested in your work outside academia, and how those who hear about your work are likely to benefit from or use what they learn
- If you don’t know the answer to these questions, just focus on trying to identify the aspects of your work that you think people outside academia are most likely to be interested in. Then ask yourself why you think they might be interested in this aspect of the work
- If you’re still struggling, go out and speak to some of the people you think might be interested, and ask them what interests them most, what might make it more interesting/relevant to them, and how they would like to benefit from or use your work
- If you have a goal that is all about communication rather than impact, then you might have a good idea of the sorts of modes of communication you want to use (e.g. social media, film), and an alternative is to work back from the communication method you’re interested in using, to the people who will engage with that method, and then their interests and how they will benefit. Beware that in some cases you may discover that the communication method you want to use will not actually reach people who are interested or can use your work (for this reason it is always best to start with the goal and/or your publics/stakeholders first, before choosing your pathways to impact)
- Download the Fast Track Impact Planning template for a structured method of linking impact goals to publics/stakeholders, research findings and pathways to impact. If you find it hard starting with the goals, try and start by identifying your publics/stakeholders and what they might be interested in, and then work back from there to your goals.
How do I know who might benefit from my research?
Now you’ve got some clear impact goals, you need to identify the publics and/or stakeholders that will benefit when these goals have been achieved. Here are some tips to make this easy:
- If you have limited knowledge and experience of publics/stakeholders working in your area, team up with a colleague who knows more. If you have time and contacts, consider inviting someone from outside academia who works with the people you want to help, and get them to advise you on the key groups you need to reach out to.
- For stakeholders, consider the relative interest each group or organisation has in your work, and their relative influence over your ability to achieve your impact goals. This influence could be negative (blocking you from achieving impact) or positive (enabling you to achieve things that would not have been possible without their help).
- For publics, in addition to considering their relative interest in your work, consider the extent to which different groups (e.g. demographics, interest groups) might benefit from your work.
- See the graphics below for examples of actions you can take with each of the categories of publics and stakeholders that emerge from this analysis.
- Reach out to as many of the groups that emerge as benefiting strongly or being highly influential before you submit your grant application to get their feedback and help with your pathway to impact. This will lead to a stronger, more credible pathway and will give these groups a greater sense of joint ownership, making them more likely to engage if you get funded.
You can see good practice examples of impact summaries and pathways to impact here.
Find out more
To find out more about Prof Mark Reed’s work on impact, visit Fast Track Impact or check out the second edition of The Research Impact Handbook. This blog post is adapted from a blog first published on the Fast track website.
For more info on Olumide's research at SISER, click here.