Research Councils UK (RCUK) defines research impact as 'the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy'. This can involve academic impact, economic and societal impact or both:

  • Academic impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent social and economic research makes in shifting understanding and advancing scientific, method, theory and application across and within disciplines
  • Economic and societal impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent social and economic research makes to society and the economy, and its benefits to individuals, organisations and/or nations.  

The impact of research, be it academic, economic and social can include:

  • 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.

The link between knowledge exchange and impact

Knowledge exchange (KE) (RCUK website), the enabling of two way exchange between researchers and research users to share ideas, research evidence, experiences and skills, is fundamental to our understanding of what makes excellent research. KE is often associated with activities which can be planned and costed; from seminars and workshops to placements and collaborative research. However, good KE is as much about approach, mindset, personal qualities and researcher mission. 

This means that the scope of actions included in your Pathways to Impact should be wider rather than narrower in nature and include ways of encouraging reflection, conceptual advancement and adjustment amongst the research team as well as users.

Collaborative research and impact

Through evaluation and commissioned work on knowledge exchange, we have found that more co-productive forms of research (ie research undertaken with rather than on people in a collaborative, iterative process of shared learning) offer particular potential for impact academically and socially.

We encourage such applications, which can include working with people in community, public policy and business settings. Anecdotal feedback from researchers who have participated in co-production have reported benefits for their networks, job satisfaction and careers, which has balanced out some of the challenges they faced in undertaking this form of research.

Applicants are encouraged to include proven and innovative methods for undertaking high quality collaborative research – for example:

  • include people from user organisations as co-investigators
  • request funding to meet the practical costs that research partners incur when they take part in projects 
  • include activities that enable innovation, reflection and negotiation at key points during your research (eg learning events with research partners).

Applications that allow for activities of this sort are entirely legitimate. Good Pathways to Impact statements will show how they will resource activities such as those listed above specifically and in a focused manner.

Factors that support impact

We have identified just some of the factors that help generate impact. These include:

  • establishing networks and relationships with research users
  • acknowledging the expertise and active roles played by research users in making impact happen
  • involving users at all stages of the research, including working with user stakeholder and participatory groups
  • flexible knowledge exchange strategies, which recognise the roles that partners and collaborators may wish to play
  • developing good understanding of policy/practice contexts and encouraging users to bring knowledge of context to research
  • commitment to portfolios of research activity that build up reputations with research users
  • consistent working towards excellent infrastructure, leadership and management support
  • involve intermediaries and knowledge brokers as translators, amplifiers, network providers at times
  • supporting space and time for collaborative reflection on research design and process, findings and overall progress.

These characteristics are developed over many years of research activity, aided by supportive institutional environments and plenty of practice and reflection with colleagues and users.