Research Impact: Why you should care – Prof Helena Lenihan

Research Impact: Why you should care – Prof Helena Lenihan

Imagine tackling the world’s grand challenges of energy sustainability, or improving surgical techniques to reduce patient recovery times, or developing policy that informs economic and social recovery or improving the quality of lives in developing countries…exciting isn’t it?

There are researchers here at the University of Limerick (UL) who are involved in this type of work. For them it’s very real indeed. They are all tackling different challenges but their work has 2 key features in common:
1. Their research has impact in our economies and societies.
2. Their impact is underpinned by excellent research.

Here at UL, we define impact (in UL lingo practice impact/translational research) as ‘An effect on, change or benefit to…the economy, society, public policy or services, culture, health, the environment or quality of life’ beyond the world of academia. Importantly, while some impact exercises (e.g. UK Research Excellence Framework-REF) only capture those impacts outside of academia, UL has also sought to capture impacts on human capacity in the form of training and research capacity (e.g PhD’s graduated, Post-experience students).

For me, there is no better buzz as a researcher than the feeling you get when your research impacts in a real way in our economies and societies (e.g. impacts on policies and practices).

I have been privileged to experience this rewarding feeling on a number of occasions and can honestly say that this provides me with a real sense of satisfaction and worth as an academic.

Outside of the ‘buzz’ there are others reasons why we should care about research that makes an impact in our economies and societies. These reasons are commonly referred to as the 4 A’s: Advocacy involves advocating for continued funding of research; Allocation of research funding based on ‘impact beyond academia’ is relatively new; the UK’s REF has applied this standard for the first time across a research system; Accountability indicates that publicly funded research should aim to demonstrate a payback for society and finally, Analysis can lead to improvements in/for society; robust analysis helps to answer the question, ‘what works best and under what circumstances?’

Here are four key take-away messages that you might find helpful as you think about the impact of your own research:

(1) First question to ask yourself is ‘What happened that would not have happened in the absence of your research?” Making an impact is not just about disseminating research. It’s crucial to demonstrate a clear link between the research and the impact, and to highlight the reach and significance of the impact.

(2) Engage in Impact by Design-Think about Mapping out your Research Impact Pathway before embarking on a research project. Develop your own ‘Logic model’

Really good mapping involves understanding the user-community and asking yourself who is it that I am trying to target with this work? Think about engaging with the user community as part of the design of your project.

Considering an entire impact pathway before starting a research project might lead you to rethink some elements of your approach. Also this pathway is not linear, see it as a network or with feedback loops built in. Really fascinating Research Impact Pathways tend to be systemic and evolutionary in nature. It’s your impact pathway so unlike other aspects of research over which we have no control, we can really influence this, but of course as with all things in life we need to be open to unintended effects and of course serendipity…

(3) Engaging in a research impact agenda opens doors and exposes our research to new audiences – audiences we may have never considered had we just stuck to comfortable conversations with our fellow academics. But we do need to think about how we communicate with these new audiences.

(4) Think about the story of your research-we are creatures of narrative and for me this is one of the key reasons as to why the case-study approach that we have been using here at UL works so well as a methodology to communicate the real practice impact of our work (see

When you engage with the impact case studies we have developed to date here at UL (, you will notice that ‘impact’ can and should be broadly defined to include social, economic, cultural, environmental, health and quality-of-life benefits.

Here at UL our research community are well-placed to be leaders in the field of research impact. We can create that culture of impact and every one of us has a part to play in it. Our DNA here in UL has always been about excellence and relevance.

Find out more: Lenihan H (2011) Enterprise policy evaluation: Is there a ‘new’ way of doing it? Evaluation and Program Planning 34 (4), 323-332. lan.2011.03.006

Professor Helena Lenihan is an applied economist and researcher specialising in enterprise development policy, innovation, policy evaluation and research impact. Lenihan’s research is widely published in high impact journals such as Research Policy, Small Business Economics, Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, Economic and Industrial Democracy and Entrepreneurship and Regional Development. She has consulted widely on issues of enterprise/innovation policy and policy evaluation for organisations such as Enterprise Ireland and Forfas (now DJEI). Prof. Lenihan is Chair of UL’s research impact working group which concerns itself with research impact beyond academia.  Prof. Lenihan’s research projects have been funded by national and international funding sources including Framework Programme 7, European Science Foundation, Higher Education Authority and Royal Irish Academy. Lenihan holds a BA in Economics and German (joint hons) from University College Dublin (UCD), Masters in Economics from UCD, PhD from University of Ulster. She was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Business Research (CBR), Judge Business School and Wolfson College, University of Cambridge and visiting academic at the University of Warwick.

Research Impact Editor


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