What is impact?
Research Councils UK (RCUK) defines research impact as 'the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy'.
Research impact embraces all the diverse ways that research-related skills benefit individuals, organisations and nations. These include:
- fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom
- increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy
- enhancing quality of life, health and creative output.
A key aspect of this definition of research impact is that impact must be demonstrable. It is not enough just to focus on activities and outputs that promote research impact, such as staging a conference or publishing a report. You must be able to provide evidence of research impact, for example, that it has been taken up and used by policy makers, and practitioners, has led to improvements in services or business.
Above all, research must be of the highest quality: you can't have impact without excellence.
Types of research impact
We aim to achieve research impact across all our activities. This can involve academic impact, economic and societal impact or both:
- Academic impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent social and economic research makes to scientific advances, across and within disciplines, including significant advances in understanding, method, theory and application.
- Economic and societal impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent social and economic research makes to society and the economy, of benefit to individuals, organisations and nations.
Maximising the benefits of our investment in social science is central to our Strategic Plan 2009-14. This commitment is illustrated in our Delivery Plan 2011-2015 which sets out how we will ensure impact is central to all our activities.
The impact of social science research can be categorised as:
- Instrumental: influencing the development of policy, practice or service provision, shaping legislation, altering behaviour
- Conceptual: contributing to the understanding of policy issues, reframing debates
- Capacity building: through technical and personal skill development.
Planning research impact
To plan impact effectively you need to:
- identify your key stakeholders, for example, other researchers; public sector; business/industry
- Identify how they will benefit from your research – types of impact might include: improving social welfare/public services; influencing public policy; contributing to operational/organisational change
- Identify how you will ensure they have the opportunity to benefit, for example through organising public events; conferences; interaction with the media.
For practical guidance on planning research impact, see the information on developing an impact strategy.
Evaluating research impact
Determining the impact of social science research is not a straightforward task. Policy and service development is not a linear process, and decisions are rarely taken on the basis of research evidence alone. This makes it difficult to pin down the role that an individual piece of research has played.
The timing of evaluation also presents challenges. Too soon after the research ends may mean that any impact has yet to fully develop. Too late, and the impact may no longer be traceable as people involved have moved on.
We are exploring new methods for assessing research impact on policy and practice. For further information see our information on impact assessment. To find out more about evaluating impact, see our information on measuring success.
We are exploring new methods for assessing the impact of the research we fund on policymakers and practitioners, in order to demonstrate its broader contribution to society and the economy. This forms part of the new strategic emphasis on impact assessment alongside our work on bibliometrics and international benchmarking. As part of this initiative, we began to commission a series of impact case studies aimed at identifying the impact from ESRC research, and testing evaluation approaches.
The case studies section features examples of successful impact.
Further research impact information
Next step, Why make an impact?