Research impact: Why is it important?

research impact

In the latest episode of LaunchPod, host Paul Stimpson was joined by Nicola Coxon, University of Sheffield’s Impact Officer. Nicola ran an excellent session at a recent Researcher in Residence Induction Event in Sheffield and kindly agreed to continue the conversation for those who weren’t in attendance and for the wider network of academics and industry professionals.

You ran a session for our Researchers in Residence. How did that go? I feel like the feedback has been great.

Yeah, thank you. It was really interesting. It was great to have an opportunity at the end of the session to have a chat with you a bit and the researchers there who had a few extra questions. I can only talk about Sheffield but there were discussions on effective ways of evidencing impact and if I had any top tips. There isn’t always tips and like everything, there isn’t always a one size fits all when it comes to impact.

Impact is a pretty important word in research. Can you sum up what is it?

Yeah and I think that’s where it gets tricky. I use the word impact a lot, meaning different things. But really it’s just the benefit, just to give a really, really simple definition. It just means the benefits or the real world benefit or change that has happened as a result of research. The key thing is that it’s the benefit outside of academia. It can be a benefit to individuals, groups and different businesses, society and but I think the key thing is it’s demonstrable. You’ve got to be able to demonstrate a measurable change or a benefit that’s happened as a result of research.

What are the types of impact?

Yeah, it’s again very broad. It really can be so wide ranging and vast because, understandably, you can have completely different types of impact for different types of research. If you’re in the social sciences, it’s completely different to natural sciences. Generally impacts are grouped. It might be policy, a law change to the economic health and wellbeing, societal level or environmental. They’re sort of your key umbrella terms and as well, we’ll have missed some terms there it’s not an exhaustive list, but more specifically it might be to enhance wellbeing of a certain group of people or a population

Listen to the full interview on LaunchPod here

In the UK we tend to categorise them into economic impacts. The benefits that are happening is wealth generation, job creation and skills – that’s economic impact. Then there’s societal impact – whether that’s influencing health or policy or culture. And then environmental impact, which is on the increase and that’s all to do with the benefits and changes to the natural world.  It’s a very broad area and it’s a very interesting area because when people think about research, they probably don’t think about impact. They’re probably just thinking about the research side of things. But it’s a hugely important part of it.

Why is it important? And that’s kind of a big question. So I guess the floor is yours!

Yes, it is! And perhaps I’m not qualified to do that. Ultimately it’s just the good the research is doing. It’s improvement and in society and it’s real-world benefit. That’s the sort of baseline. But then if you’re looking at it in more detail for institutions and universities, it has a real impact (!) if you’re looking at university rankings or national – or even international – reputation, I think being able to demonstrate strong impacts on an institution is key. And for the individual researcher, in terms of publicity, engagement and your own career development, again, being able to source evidence that the work that you have done has led to that to strong impact is very important.

Obviously we can’t ignore the financial element of it. Most funding applications now…most of the UK research councils and funding bodies really want to see that impact is embedded into a project. It’s a key consideration when reviewing applications.

Thanks Nicola, any final thoughts?

I don’t know the infrastructure for every university but there will be teams and resources available at each institution. Making use of those and just off the top of my head, there’s the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement which has loads of good resources on there like templates and tools.

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