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All About Research Impact In A Post COVID World (Part 5)

Research Engagement & Impact: Strategic Imperatives to Building University Reputations

Universities & Academics Need To Capitalise On Them To Build Lasting Reputations  

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 the Relationship between Research Engagement and Impact.

What is research engagement?

Let’s think of it as engaged research rather than as research engagement. Engaged research is research that sees itself in the context of the world, as being embedded in it and not in isolation. This engagement can take several forms. Public engagement is about inviting a larger audience to connect with the university’s research and researchers. Similarly, business engagement involves universities working with businesses to ensure that their work has benefits in the commercial sector. Policy engagement is another form, where university researchers work with government policymakers to influence public policy for the better. Patient engagement is where patients and health service consumers are involved in research that is crucial to their own lives. Essentially, it is about breaking down the walls that often surround academic research and letting research get out into the world. Just as  importantly, it is about letting the world in. 

How does it help universities?

Fundamentally, it is part of the university’s mission to create new knowledge that benefits the world. First of all, engaged research is often simply better research. It is research enhanced by the involvement of people from outside of academia and therefore includes a range of perspectives and ideas. But even more important is the fact that it plays a significant role in enhancing a university’s reputation. If a university is seen as having meaningful connections and collaborations with a range of key institutions, it makes its research appear outstanding and in demand. One area where universities are seeing these benefits are in their activities to achieve and support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These reputational factors further feed into areas such as student and staff recruitment and retention, credibility of grant proposals, among other things, which are core to the business of the university. The REF and KEF also directly reward universities that have strong and effective engagement. All of these reasons have contributed to universities, especially in the UK, increasingly perceiving engagement as a key strategic activity.

To attain maximum research impact, who are the stakeholders to be engaged?

It’s tempting to say that working with the biggest and most influential stakeholders is likely to have the biggest impact but that may not always be the case. The best way to go about this is to engage with those stakeholders who have the most pressing need to work with your university, even if they are relatively smaller. They are likely to bring deeper and more meaningful engagement on their part and in turn, effect more positive benefits to your research and its subsequent impact. And these engagements, if they turn out right, can lead to a snowball effect and result in greater impact. For instance, your work with a local authority on some policy issue could get picked up by multiple authorities and could eventually feed into national policy. But it’s important to remember that this is happening because you decided to go for that very intense but fruitful small scale engagement. It is the commitment to engagement and the intensity rather than scale or prestige which is important. So that’s what you should be focusing on when determining which stakeholders to work with.    

Any concluding thoughts on research impact and research engagement?

Impact and engagement have always been part of what universities do. But, in recent years, there has been a much more explicit focus on these things. Universities are now thinking more deeply and strategically about how they achieve impact and engage with stakeholders. This is true not just at the level of the university but also at the level of individual researchers and academics. This is demonstrated through their involvement in knowledge exchange, production of case studies, public engagement activities and so on. The ones who grasp this agenda and use it positively are the ones who are going to be more successful. It is imperative to not see impact as something that comes after the research is done. Rather, it is about researchers taking every opportunity to engage with the world outside of academia in a sustained manner to be able to enrich their own research and ultimately, change the world.  

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