The emerging impact landscape


There’s considerable confusion about what ‘impact’ is, and this is no surprise given that it’s a term that’s used for so many things in the contemporary research space.

For my research, I’ve had many, many conversations with people across higher education in Australia and Canada at all career levels (research higher degree students, Early Career Researchers, Mid Career Researchers).  Alongside the confusion about what impact is is what impact means (and will mean) to academics.

The following primer is a brief history of the impact landscape, an exploration of some of the trends in higher education, and some things to consider as you start your ‘impact journey.’

So, let’s start by clarifying some of the many meanings of impact. I find it easiest to consider impact as happening either inside (internal) or outside (external) of academia.

Internal impact are the kinds of impacts that academics have been talking about, tracking, and trying to increase for years. These impacts are front of mind for academics as they’re often related to annual reviews, promotion and tenure. These types of impacts are also often referred to as academic or research impact. Generally, if you see a university library advertising a session on increasing your impact, this is what they’re discussing.

Examples of academic impact activities may include:

  • publishing in well regarded journals
  • presenting at research conferences
  • measuring reach, e.g. citation counts, h-index, bibliometrics such as Web of Science (Clarivate) and Scopus (Elsevier)
  • academic social networks, e.g. Research Gate and
  • acquiring grants ($)
  • receiving awards / recognition

Increasingly, when university administrations ‘discuss’ impact, they are talking about the impact academic research has outside of the academy, or external impact. This type of impact may be on politics, health, technology, the economy, law, culture, society or the environment.

Examples of external impacts (as a result of research):

  • Improved health outcomes
  • Increased agricultural yield or resiliency
  • Enriched safety/security standards
  • Decreased cost or increased revenue
  • Transformed education practices (e.g., curriculum)
  • Increased public safety/national defence
  • Integration of research recommendations into regulatory frameworks, policy, or law
  • Adoption of methods to improve tracking/measuring
  • Decreasing disease prevalence
  • Implemented sustainability practices

Put simply:

Getting a journal article published is internal impact.
Having that research create change in the world, is external impact.

The ‘impact agenda’ has been spurred on by several factors, but the most dominant has taken the form of institutional assessments. In an increasingly ‘accountability’ driven higher education space, such assessments have been adopted to provide tracking of and justification for the investment of public money in university-based research. The history of impact goes back to the early 2000s with various schemes and pilots having been run along the way. The notion of ‘Impact’ (external) really took hold in 2014 when the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK introduced an impact assessment. The REF 2021 will also have an impact component. Impact is not going away.

In Australia, the Engagement and Impact (EI) Assessment was run in 2018 as part of the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) process, by the Australian Research Council (ARC). Results were released at the end of March. Each university in Australia submitted case studies of research in each Field of Research (FoR code, which is a broad disciplinary categorisation) to be assessed in engagement, impact, and approach to impact. Each submission was scored by a panel of experts as either low, medium, or high. If you were at a university that did not have philosophy department, you would not submit a case study for FoR 22 (Philosophy and Religious Studies), but if you did have a philosophy department you were expected to submit (with a few exceptions).

To complicate things even further, there is retrospective and prospective impact. Retrospective impact is the impact your research has already had (or is having). Prospective impact is the impact that you would like — or hope — your research to have. I recently heard impact described in a meeting as ‘big I impact’ and ‘little i impact.’ The former being the big institutional assessments (REF, EI) that only a few high performing researchers will be involved with. Whereas “small i impact” is how each individual researcher will consider how impact is incorporated into their research plans, evidenced, and reported on. The national interest test may, for example, be considered ‘small i impact,’ as the onus sits on the individual researcher to account for how the research will make an impact that benefits the interests of the nation. Increasingly, researchers are being required to account for the expected impact of research through impact statements on grant applications.

Some universities have recognised the need to resource external impact more fully in response to the institutional impact assessments and an increased focus on impacts in grants. Universities have hired writers to assist with impact statements, communications experts to assist with building academic profiles, knowledge mobilisation specialists, and a full complement of expertise to meet their local needs. Other universities, have been unresponsive, perhaps conceiving of impact as an academic fad. In the UK funding is attached to impact through the REF. In Australia, the Engagement and Impact Assessment is not, at this point, related to funding. Resourcing will likely be dictated by the trajectory impact takes in the coming years.

It is important to note that this isn’t a settled space. Our understandings of how to account for the impact of academic research in society is still evolving, and along with that, our language to describe it. For example, because the REF and EI utilised a case study approach, those supporting and promoting impact might avoid quantitative words such as ‘measures,’ and instead adopt ‘indicators.’

It is clear that impact is not just coming, it is here. Knowing how to talk about impact and chart pathways to impact — the various engagements along the way that will aid research being taken up — will become increasingly critical for academics. We have been talking about internal impact for years but being able to articulate external impact will be increasingly important for academics’ success.

Author Bio: Wade Kelly is the Senior Coordinator, Research Impact, at La Trobe University, in Melbourne, Australia