Research impact: the importance of effective research management

Tunnel Image

Striving to achieve impact from academic research may appear to be a wholly good thing, but how research leaders and managers interpret what impact means is vital to ensuring they can generate outstanding impact. Catherine O’Connell, lecturer, Liverpool Hope University, asks whether current formulaic interpretations of research impact have a limited, rather than enabling, effect on higher education institutions.

The introduction of research impact to the Research Excellence Framework 2014 prompted significant consternation in the academic community at the time. For some it was perceived as an erosion of academic freedom and increased government control of research agendas. However, a cautious optimism has been evident in some quarters on the potential to broaden the concept of research excellence in a constructive way. The Million+ group, in its response to the Stern Review consultation, indicated that the process would be ‘valuable even if no funding decisions were associated’. The importance of this policy formulation is emphasised by newer universities in recognising and supporting a broader range of applied and translational research, and increased attention paid to delivering on universities’ civic duties. Even more telling is the recently announced decision by Hefce to increase the weighting of impact from 20% in 2014 to 25% in 2021.

So, how do higher education leaders and managers make strategic decisions on how to identify, nurture and select impact examples from research? And how could the Leadership Foundation contribute?

Tunnel vision

Research conducted by Watermeyer & Hedgcoe mid-way through the last REF cycle (2009-2014) highlighted local responses to impact policy in research-intensive institutions. They observed a tendency to frame impact around the activities of individual (and commonly senior-level) academics which can affect the level of resources and support available for earlier career academics in impact-related activities. Watermeyer also identified a tendency among academics to interpret impact in relation to interactions with government, reflecting ‘a rather one-dimensional form of impact as emergent from interactions with a singular research beneficiary/user’. For example policymakers, who are only one specific type of beneficiary from academic research, overlooking industry, public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as the higher education sector itself.

Panoramic view

What is needed is a more critical debate around what impact means, how it can be supported and how broadening the definitions, mechanisms and support for impact planning can ultimately enhance research impact for public and institutional good. The Leadership Foundation has published research on a data mining exercise of impact from REF case studies on leadership, governance and management, which has informed the development of a toolkit. The toolkit aims to assist research leaders, managers and individual researchers to develop an embedded and strategic approach to research impact, covering a broad spectrum of impact areas to enable different staff groups and stakeholders to coordinate their approach to impact. One such tool (Tool 8, Anticipating the horizon of possible benefits) stimulates thinking about where impact might occur across a whole spectrum of categories – from Culture to Policy, and Technology to Environment – and uses prompt questions to discern the nature of such potential impact.

Analysis of the 46 impact case studies in my area of higher education -focused educational research demonstrated greater diversity of impact activities than anticipated by earlier research. There is only limited information in the public domain on those studies which achieved 3 and 4* but, of the case studies where grading can be determined, several reflected pedagogic research and impact strategies aimed at broader policy communities.

Why the narrow face?

To understand this better, I have interviewed academics who have suggested that instead of a broad interpretation of impact, a more formulaic response to impact was described in many cases which seemed to prioritise particular forms of research (based on prevailing hierarchies of research reputation) and effectively narrow the parameters of national REF impact policy:

My university wants impact supported only by 3 or 4 star research – I think that’s a mistake. 

Several interviewees, in senior academic positions, reflected on the advice they were inclined to pass on to early career researchers; effectively to advise against pursuing particular forms of research, such as research conducted with policy communities rather than policy makers. The disenchantment expressed was troubling and reflected largely negative experiences of local management of REF impact policy:

So we’ve got this mad game playing now where you start to decide what is and what isn’t impact in quite draconian ways…  so they’re already starting to be shaped up and crafted, and then anything else that’s outside those case studies, whether it has impact or not, it doesn’t really matter because they’re not important…

Impact leadership to enable

Impact brings a new element to research evaluation policy that gives conceptual and managerial space for interpretation. The Leadership Foundation 2014 report ‘Academic leadership: changing conceptions, identities and experiences in UK higher education’ emphasises the qualities of management and leadership sought by the academic community: of enabling environments which can nurture the next generation of researchers; fostering academic citizenship and reflecting different ways of making a contribution. Potentially, impact can value a broader range of research activities and give recognition to different types of research contribution. In the Research Leader’s Impact Toolkit, emphasis is placed upon the importance of understanding context, engagement and collaboration at an institutional and research team level.

However, the formulaic and normative interpretations of REF impact policy identified in several organisational contexts suggest that impact policy is having a limiting rather than enabling effect. There are clear challenges but also opportunities at organisational level in responding to this indicator constructively and in defining institutional policy responses which foster inclusion rather than exclusion within the academic community.

As highlighted in my study, in some organisations impact policy is being interpreted in ways that resonate with, and build upon, academics’ research practices in departmental and faculty contexts:

I actually became quite a fan. I thought it was something significant and important and it brought to light some of the research people were doing that was having really significant effect in people’s lives […]  That kind of research hasn’t necessarily been valued.

Having a critical debate to develop and define local impact policies and practices, from the strategic to the operational, can be an important first step in this journey – and resources like the Research Leader’s Impact Toolkit will be a valuable companion.

Catherine O’Connell is a Lecturer in Education Studies at the Centre for Education and Policy Analysis, Liverpool Hope University.

Find out more about our Research Leader’s Impact Toolkit:

Download Dr Elizabeth Morrow’s report on The Impact of Higher Education Leadership, Governance and Management Research: Mining the 2014 Research Excellence Framework Impact Case Studies: