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All About Research Impact In A Post COVID World (Part 3)

The what, why and how of ensuring impact

Engagement and co-creation are the bedrock of creating and sustaining impact

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 Does One Ensure Impact.

What are the things to keep in mind when it comes to ensuring research impact?

This might sound counterintuitive, but the fact is that researchers do not have impact. Apart from carrying out research, researchers go out and engage with other people beyond universities. And it is these people who actually create impact. But let’s not assume that the process of engaging with people is any less important. I like to use the metaphor of an electric guitar. On its own it is a very quiet instrument but when you plug it to an amplifier, you can fill up an entire stadium with it. The engagement process is like plugging in the guitar into the amplifier. Researchers should focus on connecting and engaging with the right people and creating impact through that.        

Secondly, not all researchers have or need to have impact. Even under the formal REF framework, there is space for pure research – areas such as pure mathematics, pure science or even deep philosophical scholarship that do not have any obvious implications in the real world. But it is imperative for all researchers to think of the potential of impact of their work. It is essential that they have conversations with colleagues, impact managers and academic leadership about whether they are facilitating the right kind of impact. As long as the institution as a whole is promoting as much impact as possible across the whole portfolio of research, that is what matters.

Can you share some tips that universities and researchers can follow to ensure research impact?

Co-creating research along with its intended beneficiaries can be a very powerful way of achieving impact, and for researchers in many disciplines is the most important tool in their impact toolkit. This means working with beneficiaries before, during and after the research project. This is already widely practiced in healthcare research but it needs to become commonplace across all areas of research. The willingness to listen to people and include them in your research, not just talk to them, more often leads to lasting impact. It also usually provides more solid evidence to corroborate the impact.

A recent example where co-creation was put to excellent use was at the University of Aberdeen, an institute that we work closely with at Impact Science. The research project – Scottish Teachers for a New Era – was all about transforming teaching in Scotland. The impact of the programme has been such that it has not just revolutionised teaching in Scotland but has also created ripples as far as Argentina. It was a big project, yes, but one of the key reasons for its success was the inclusion of teacher practitioner research scholarships. Funds were provided for teachers to be able to conduct research on their own teaching practices while in the classroom. First of all, it helped teachers inform and improve their own teaching, but it also fed into the larger project and the results and recommendations that came from it. This is an example of how co-creation which is baked in right at the start of a research project helps improve research and create lasting impact.

What are some myths related to research impact that need busting?

The biggest misconception which is also deeply entrenched is that for impact to be of significance, it needs to be taking place at a national or global scale. That’s just not true. If a research project has a profound impact on beneficiaries, however small the number, it is just as valuable. It is significant not just in its own terms but also in context of the REF. There’s a good example  from the time when I was the Impact Manager for Kingston University in London. The English Literature department at the university had, while working with a charity, designed a creative writing programme for combat veterans to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. It was about helping them use the medium of creative writing as part of a therapeutic process. The number of combat veterans who were impacted by the programme was less than a hundred but the impact it had on them was powerful. Using literature as a form of healing was a very significant form of impact. That case study went into REF 2014 and got four stars. So  it is not always about how many people you are having an impact on, but about how deep the impact goes. 

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