Impact and your research proposal: some resources and reflections
For support in writing the impact sections of your research proposal please contact Rebecca Edwards in RKEO Knowledge and Impact Team.
In the Research and Knowledge Exchange Office, all too often we hear the same feedback on rejected research bids, that although the case for support was excellent, other sections of the proposal meant that it could not be funded. One area which is proving to be especially problematic is the ‘impact’ section (normally an impact summary and pathways to impact section in RCUK bids) and with increasing competitiveness for funding, research proposals with any weak sections are likely to go unfunded.
Whether you feel positively about the impact agenda or not, it is increasingly a feature of Higher Education policy, and funding of research is likely to be ever more dependent upon ensuring that the “public” (i.e. our society and economy) benefits from research. This in itself is a highly contentious turn of policy direction which I know many colleagues are deeply concerned about, however, I believe the impact agenda is here to stay and it is important to maximise the opportunities that it presents. With this in mind, it is useful to think about how to enhance your research proposals to ensure a weak impact section does not mean your work goes unfunded. It also gives researchers a greater opportunity to make a positive difference with their research findings.
In my experience, many colleagues are already deeply committed to delivering impact from their research, and as an institution with such a focus on professional practice, BU has a unique opportunity to delivery research which has considerable impact. However, when I support colleagues in preparing the impact sections of their research proposals, the material presented for the reviewers does not correlate to the aspirations that the researcher actually has. So, if you are preparing a research proposal and feeling flummoxed about the impact section of your bid, it is well worth taking some time to browse the resources that are available to help develop your impact section.
RCUK: Many resources are available on the RCUK website which are very useful:
There are lots more resources on the site, which I highly recommend that you read through. You can find them in the Knowledge Exchange and Impact section of their site.
Guidance from your funder: Each funder has its own unique set of guidance, which can be very helpful to follow. This will tell you exactly what the funder is looking to see in the relevant impact sections and can be remarkably helpful in structuring this section. For example, you can find helpful sections from ESRC with their ‘Impact Toolkit’, AHRC’s section on ‘Impact Assessment’, EPSRC’s impact guidance for applicants and reviewers, or NERC’s section on Pathways to Impact. If you are unable to find the specific guidance that you are looking for, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Inspiration for Pathways to Impact sections: For inspiration on pathways to impact, it is worth checking out the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s “how to do it” section of the website. It can also be useful to remind yourself of why engagement matters. Also worthwhile is exploring the websites of University’s that have received RCUK funding to develop public engagement activities, such as UCL, for examples of projects.
LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog: As a social scientist (my PhD was in geography, I then worked in interdisciplinary research centres on governance and policy issues) I read with great interest the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog. This is both a great source of information and also an important place to stay up to date with the debates around impact. The impact agenda is still very much being defined, so it is crucial that as many of us contribute to is as possible to ensure academic research is fairly represented.
EU guidance: Compared to say, RCUK, there is relatively little information on how to prepare impact sections on EU bids. However, Emily Cieciura can provide appropriate support for the impact section, including collating appropriate sources of information. Please contact Emily directly if you are preparing an EU bid.
Your colleagues in Research and Knowledge Exchange: As a relatively new member of staff at BU (having worked at several research intensive universities) I am really impressed by the support that is on hand for colleagues to prepare their research bids. We are all based on the 4th floor of Melbury House, which means you can come and talk to all the relevant officers about your research proposal at once and we can explore how best to support the development of your research proposal. We are well stocked with tea and biscuits too! I would strongly recommend that you get in-touch with us as soon as you start preparing your research proposal. The more time we have, the more work we can support your bid to ensure it has the best possible chance of success.
A few tips from experience of reviewing pathways to impact sections
- Think about the impact of your research as an integral part of the research proposal from the earliest stages of your proposal preparations. If you leave the impact summary and pathways to impact section to the last minute, your reviewers will spot this a mile off and may think you are not committed to delivering impact. To start with, focus on the Impact Summary, i.e. who might benefit from your research and how they might benefit. From this, you can then develop the Pathways to Impact.
- Brainstorm ideas with colleagues outside of academia. For example, if you are exploring how a charity might respond to climate change, have a discussion with colleagues in the third sector to explore what might be the most appropriate way to ensure your research has impact. If you do not have these contacts to hand, think about a public engagement activity that could help you develop this work or attend non-academic conferences in your research area.
- Remember that potential beneficiaries of research are not looking for critique of their practices (although of course, this needs to happen to facilitate improvement) but suggestions on how to improve what they do. On a personal note, I see all too often that the academics with a large sphere of influence are not those with the best research (in terms of rigour and quality), but those that find ways to engage and present solutions rather than problems.
- Be creative about the ‘Pathways to Impact’. This means how you will engage the appropriate people that can use your research findings to maximum benefit. This does not simply mean dissemination – pushing out information in the hope that the right people will pick it up – but ways of ensuring that those that can create impact are enable to understand the significance of your research. It is crucial to move beyond dissemination or even outreach; increasingly funders and looking for a more meaningful two way dialogue.
- Another point about ‘Pathways to Impact’. A large proportion of bids focus on a small number of pathways e.g. a website, conference and focus groups. This can be appropriate, but also risks sounding very generic and unimaginative. Thinking creatively will help to convince your reviewers that you have fully considered how you will achieve impact.
- Avoid thinking that your research will not have any impact – this is not what funders will want to hear. All research can have an impact, although admittedly, some research projects are more challenging than others. For example, you can read here about how the Large Hadron Collider is of benefit to society.
- Remember that the Pathways to Impact section needs to be reflected in the justification for resources section of your proposal. Investment (on the most part) is required to ensure that your Pathways to Impact are effective, so your reviewer will expect to dedicate resource to this.
- Remember that potential academic impact should be explored in the Academic Beneficiaries section and Case for Support sections of the research proposal.
Of course, there is much more advice out there, and often it is very difficult to advise generically, so please do feel free to get in touch with me if I can offer further support. Best of luck developing the impact section of your research proposal!