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All about Research Impact in a post COVID world (Part 1)

Your research has made an impact – now it’s time to tell the world

Dr Iain Coleman, who leads the work of Impact Science in the UK, joined us to participate in a series of insightful conversations. Dr Coleman provides comprehensive impact and engagement support to universities and researchers, in the context of the REF, the KEF and the broader research impact and public engagement agenda.

This week’s blog is based on Dr Coleman’s commentary on How and Why to Promote Impact.

Impact and its importance for universities

Impact is a relatively broad term that refers to any benefits to the wider world which result from research that happens within a university. This could entail the commercialization of technology, influencing government policies, changing health care practices and a wide range of other benefits.

This kind of impact has always been part of the university’s mission to create new knowledge and apply that knowledge to society as a whole. Recently, this has gained more critical importance for universities. Being publicly funded institutions, they understand that they are accountable to the public for the money spent on them, and want to demonstrate the benefits of their work.

 Significant amount of university research funding in the UK is based on the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which allocates funding to universities based on the excellence of their research. This is determined by several factors, with 25% of the score being based on the research impact of the university. Assessment frameworks in some other countries also include impact, thus making it an explicit part of university missions.

When is it a good time for universities to promote impact?

It is crucial for a university to establish its reputation for excellent impact and to then promote it. This helps the university to attract top students, recruit the best staff, communicate the university’s mission and achievements to its existing students and staff, and show other academic institutions and funding bodies that the university has a global impact.

Ideally, this should be a continuous process but in the UK context in particular, now would be an ideal time to do it. The REF process for universities has recently come to an end, where every university put forward dozens of their most impressive impact case studies, precisely written narratives tightly supported by evidence. Now universities can take advantage of this opportunity to extract the information from these dense, bureaucratic documents written for an audience of REF panelists and turn them into stories that are much more public-friendly and accessible. By enhancing these case studies with visual content such as videos and infographics along with media promotion, universities will be able to increase their global reputation for research impact.

What are some effective means which can be used to promote impact?

The university’s website is the natural place to promote research impact – the challenge is to get people to look at it. Eye-catching content works well on social media. Infographics, animations, short video clips all encourage people to click through and read the full impact story. It’s a cost-effective way to get eyeballs onto your website.

There’s also an important place for more formal approaches. When it comes to engaging with businesses and other external partners, attractively designed white papers with in-depth accounts of the university’s previous impact success stories can be an effective way of opening doors and eventually achieving even greater impact.

New developments to keep an eye out for in the field of impact

Universities have started now to develop more strategic approaches to impact, and are already thinking about impact in the long term. The knowledge exchange agenda has seen a shift as well. The term ‘knowledge exchange’ is mainly used to refer to engagement with businesses, although it has also expanded to encompass community and public engagement.

This is something universities have done for a long time, but without much of an overarching framework. This has started the change, with the arrival of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) and the associated Knowledge Exchange Concordat. These are encouraging universities to take a more rigorous and systematic approach to setting knowledge exchange goals and evaluating their performance against those goals. This is a very positive development, particularly in terms of continuous improvement underpinned by evaluation and self-reflection. Unlike the REF, there is no direct link to funding, but that may well change as the KEF agenda develops.

If this momentum keeps up, we will see increasing engagement efforts from universities, both in quantity and quality, with more universities working towards the best practice in the sector. Ultimately, this will lead to greater impact from research, and more benefits to society from this core part of the university mission.

Zoya Nadeem

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