What is Impact?

As Middlesex University’s Impact Officer, the most frequent question I hear is “what is impact?”

So… what is impact?

Broadly, we can understand the word impact to mean “the effective action of one thing or person upon another; the effect of such action; influence; impression” (OED). Applying the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of impact to research, then, means the ways in which research facilitates a change or contributes towards a shift in practice, attitude, technique, etc. Research impact is the eventual change in/of something as a result of the research itself. This change might be direct or indirect, meaning the change might occur in a direct relationship to the research, or it might happen in several stages of remove.

HEFCE tells us the following:

For the purposes of the REF, impact is defined 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. Impact includes, but is not limited to, an effect on, change or benefit to:

  • the activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding
  • of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals
  • in any geographic location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally.

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

For the purposes of the impact element of the REF:

  • Impacts on research or the advancement of academic knowledge within the higher education sector (whether in the UK or internationally) are excluded. […]
  • Impacts on students, teaching or other activities within the submitting HEI are excluded.
  • Other impacts within the higher education sector, including on teaching or students, are included where they extend significantly beyond the submitting HEI.

Impacts will be assessed in term of their ‘reach and significance’ regardless of the geographic location in which they occurred. (“Assessment Framework and Guidance on Submissions” 26)

Thus, we see that while the definition of impact for REF 2014 is diverse in its attempt to cover a variety of disciplines, it narrows sharply in its construction of impact as something that happens outside of the submitting HEI. This is the key point in thinking about impact in terms of REF 2014.

What does this mean for academics looking to improve their impact profile or develop an impact strategy?

While the REF certainly isn’t everything, it does reflect the needs and constructions of research in the UK today. Impact isn’t going anywhere. Horizon 2020 and the UK Research Councils are increasingly funding projects that articulate the research’s proposed impact better than the competitors manage to do. The ability to demonstrate impact is only becoming more important, as is the need for tracking that impact in order to evidence it later. In the end, it doesn’t hurt to think about impact and it might hurt to ignore it.

Impact is critical. However, no one is expected to do it alone. At Middlesex University, there are a number of resources to help build impact strategies and develop impact profiles. These resources are found in Schools, Departments, University Services, and online. These resources are being added to all the time and all anyone need do is ask!

Let’s think about impact as an opportunity to demonstrate the ways that research makes a difference. Let’s think about an impact strategy as the means to show an individual or group’s ability to make research count. Finally, let’s think about impact development as evidence of the fantastic work already being done at Middlesex University.


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