Impact case studies: what are they and why are they important?

Impact is fast becoming a new buzzword in higher education as demonstrating impact becomes more and more of priority in the context of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and requirements of funders. Precisely because of its associations with REF and funding bids, the term ‘impact’ can be off-putting, but really it means no more than showing how research is making a difference – something that many researchers do instinctively but perhaps wouldn’t think to classify as ‘impact’.


HEFCE defined impact as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.”  Impact then, can be seen as the effect and research the catalyst for change. HEFCE have identified four particularly outstanding impact case studies from the last REF, which they believe represent all the different ways that research can make a difference. These are:


Under the 2014 REF, impact counted as 20% of a unit’s overall quality score and there have been suggestions that in the next REF it may count for even more.  Panels took into account the research’s ‘reach’ and ‘significance’ and gave a rating of between 4* and unclassified for each profile.  Last year’s results showed that 97% of BU’s research is having an outstanding, very considerable or considerable impact on society – a fantastic achievement. You can read examples of our REF case studies here.


As well as being an opportunity to show how our research is making a difference, impact case studies can influence the make-up of our overall REF submission profile.  For example, if two impact case studies were submitted to a unit each would count for 10% of the profile’s overall score – a significant part of each submission.  The number of case studies submitted also determined the number of staff that can be returned within each unit of assessment.  Up to 14.99 (FTE) staff required 2 impact case studies, with each additional case study allowing the inclusion of another 9.99 (FTE) staff.  The contribution of each case study author to the overall unit result was therefore very significant. Their contribution went beyond that of REF, as the materials gathered have also been used to highlight BU’s research excellence as part of a University Alliance project as well as being used to persuade future students to study at BU.


Although it seems only a short period of time since the last REF results were published, preparations for the next REF – thought to be in 2020 – are already underway.  The submission date is likely to be late 2019, which means that researchers who are currently working to connect their research results with people or organisations that could benefit from their knowledge are excellent candidates for future impact case studies. While research impact needs to take place within the specific REF timeframe, the underpinning research could be recent or date back several years, with impact building on years of previous work.


To find out more about research impact and the support on offer from BU, please contact the Knowledge Exchange and Impact Team in the Research Knowledge and Exchange Office.


To find out more about the impact element of the REF, you can read analysis reports of REF 2014 from King’s College London and RAND Europe.