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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Understanding impact: why relationships with users matter

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 3 August 2012

Caroline Kenny

With the deadline for submissions to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) fast approaching for higher education institutions in the UK, and increased focus on engagement, for example through the Research Councils Pathways to Impact process, it seems a good time to review what we know about research impact.

 1.     What is impact?

The REF defines 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. It includes, but is not limited to, effects on, changes or benefits to:

  • Activities, attitudes, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding;
  • Audiences, beneficiaries, communities, constituencies, organisations or individuals; and
  • Any geographical location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally.

It also includes the reduction or prevention of harm, risk, cost or other negative effects.

Not included are impacts on research or the advancement of academic knowledge (this is assessed within the “outputs” and “environment” elements of the REF) or impacts on students, teaching or other activities.

2.     Why is it important?

Aside from comprising 20% of the 2014 REF assessment, impact is important for many other reasons. Morally, taxpayers, funders and other stakeholders have rights to research that can influence, alter and change the social world. Moreover, decision-making informed by the best available research has a better chance of benefitting, and avoiding harming, people. It also reduces the chances of public money being wasted on unsuccessful interventions.

Engaging different stakeholders also provides many benefits to researchers and universities including: new perspectives on or approaches to work; new skills; as well as ensuring research is meaningful, timely and useful.

3.     Why is it controversial? 

Concerns have been raised about the possibilities of:

  • Prioritising certain types of research over others e.g. applied social research over more abstract philosophical/theoretical research.
  • Ignoring the value of “blue-sky thinking”.
  • Encouraging the use of narrowly focused or lower quality research in decision-making.

4.     What do we know about impact?

Getting research used in policy and practice is a complex process and we are still learning about the different ways that this happens.  From the research undertaken as part of the Evidence Informed Policy and Practice in Education in Europe (EIPPEE) project and wider work at the EPPI-Centre at the Institute of Education, we know that:

  • Research is only likely to be used if it is relevant to the needs of its potential users.  To be relevant, research should be clear and easily understood, of good quality, timely and available.
  • Research can be used in many different ways, ranging from directly informing policy and/or practice to the more indirect, or “conceptual” use, where it shapes attitudes, beliefs or understandings.
  • Research may not have an impact for a very long time and whether it does or not depends on many factors. The nature of the research is only one of these. Issues that affect potential users of research are also important.  For example: Do they have the skills to be able to find, understand or use the research effectively? And do they work in organisations that are receptive or willing to use research?
  • Most people focus on how research is packaged or communicated when trying to achieve impact. Existing knowledge tells us that this is not sufficient. Studies have demonstrated the “social” nature of research and the importance of researchers interacting with users to build relationships and trust. This not only increases the chances that research is relevant to these groups but also overcomes barriers relating to whether the research comes from a credible (and trusted) source.


Having an impact with research involves many factors; only some of which are down to the research itself. To increase the likelihood that research is used, we need more understanding about the different ways that research has impact and the effectiveness of different strategies to achieve it.  Evidence shows that we need to focus less on communicating research and more on developing relationships with users.  This reflects a shift from a very simplistic understanding of research impact where we just do the research and try and publish it, to one that better reflects the complexity of the decision-making process and the nature of the relationships between research and its use.