As researchers, the chance to make an impact on society through excellent research is an exciting prospect. Quality research can impact society in many arenas: economic, social, cultural, environmental and quality of life. Impacts can deliver a wide range of benefits through changes to products, processes, behaviour, opinions, policies and practice. Our research benefits a wide range of stakeholders: from public bodies to the private sector; from individuals to communities to the international stage.
There are four 4 areas which are important when discussing research impact. Advocacy involves advocating for continued funding of research against a background of fiscal austerity. Allocation of research funding based on ‘impact beyond academia’ is relatively new; the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (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. Analysis can lead to improvements in/for society; robust analysis helps us to answer the question, ‘What works best and under what circumstances?’
When it comes to making a real practice impact, it’s not enough just to say that our research makes a difference – we must be able to validate the impact. In addition, it’s no longer enough just to disseminate research; it’s critical to demonstrate a clear link between the research and the impact, and to highlight the reach and significance of the impact.
As we look to the future, the University of Limerick plans to build on its culture of impact. Few would argue against the need to demonstrate impact, but a key methodological challenge exists: How do we do it? One methodology used at the University of Limerick is the writing of impact case studies that demonstrate impact underpinned by excellent research. Measuring the impact of quality research is difficult; we must consider specific methodologies, tools and techniques to identify, prove and articulate the impact of research.
Anyone considering the practice impact of their research should begin by developing an impact pathway or logic model. The ‘Impact Pathway’ involves various steps: inputs, processes, outputs/outcomes, and longer-term impact. Considering research in this way can help researchers to understand and articulate the relationships between input, process and output in their research, and to narrate their case study in a logical order. In addition, impact pathways encourage researchers to consider the counterfactual: what would not have happened if the research had not been conducted? This can lead to creative thinking about the original framing of the case study as well as how the research might be expanded or redirected to have additional or wider impacts. Considering an entire impact pathway before starting a research project might lead us to reconsider some elements of our approach.
In my own experience, engaging in research that impacts policy can be rewarding and also fun. In addition, it has opened up my research to audiences I had never considered. I look forward to our working together as a research community in the months and years ahead, to build an even stronger culture of impact underpinned by excellent research.