Planning for impact: helping universities make the most of their research

Louise Shaxson is manager of the Evidence & Policy Group (EPG) of the DFID-ESRC Growth Research Programme.  She is also a research fellow in the Overseas Development Institute‘s (ODI) Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme, which focuses on improving public sector policy and strategy within the broad framework of evidence-based policy making.
Louise Shaxson

The 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) continues to spark debate, with some fascinating work by public policy research organisation RAND on how universities submitted their impact case studies and how they were assessed, and by King’s College London on the nature, scale and beneficiaries of research impact.  We don’t know what exactly will happen next time, but assuming impact remains important, should universities begin to prepare now?

In my role as an impact assessor for the 2014 REF submissions, I realised that some universities just ‘got’ the impact agenda, and some didn’t. I think (as do others) that we could be making more explicit efforts to help those that don’t.

Since its inception, the DFID-ESRC Growth Research Programme has aimed to do just that. The programme’s joint funders – the Department for International Development and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – both believe that the research it supports should have an impact on policy and practice in low-income countries and, ultimately, on poverty.

As the impact lead of the programme, I therefore encourage researchers to think critically about this. Our impact guidance note introduces them to the different types of potential impact and tries to inject a note of realism into what are often over-ambitious plans.

We only ask researchers to embark on this process once their projects have been running for a year. Then we invite them to take four simple steps to improve their pathways to impact.

We ask them to:

  • map their stakeholders;
  • develop a theory of change about how impact will be achieved;
  • clarify their roles as knowledge brokers;
  • and develop a communication strategy.

We have seen some innovative approaches to impact emerge as a result of the guidance.

The effect of impact: risk-taking in Uganda

Most recently, researchers working on the effect of risk-taking and risk-sharing habits on agricultural investment decisions in Uganda responded to the impact guidance by building a series of stakeholder engagement opportunities into their project.

Despite initial misgivings, the principal investigator reported that the guidance was “just the thing to give structure to our existing plans, as well as identify the sort of information that at present we simply don’t have”.

It underlined the need for them to find out more about how Ugandan agricultural policy was made, so that their findings might be turned into concrete recommendations with a real chance of affecting Ugandan policy.

They started with local consultation. This was followed by extensive consultation at a national level with government and private-sector decision makers, as well as representatives from civil society and donors. Both types of engagement proved invaluable. They gave researchers numerous opportunities to discuss and test their research aims, findings and – eventually – their policy recommendations with a wide range of important actors.

And their path to impact doesn’t stop there.

The project team identified a local non-governmental organisation interested in collaborating on further research, and they’re hiring people to help ensure that the research messages will continue to be heard deep inside government.

While it’s too early to say whether Ugandan agricultural policy will change as a result – and in any case legislative change is only one form of impact – we will watch with interest.

The project’s findings and recommendations are set out in this policy brief.  The process of developing the brief is captured in-depth in a stakeholder engagement report and graphic.

While we don’t expect all our projects to work this way, this example suggests that providing explicit guidance on planning for impact can make a difference.

You can follow Louise on Twitter @louiseshaxson

3 thoughts on “Planning for impact: helping universities make the most of their research

  1. Pingback: Daily News and Updates on Refugee and Forced Migration Studies 01/20/2016 | Refugee Archives @ UEL

  2. Great insight, embracing the values of publics, stakeholders and end-users enriches knowledge generation and exchange, improving the quality of research. For the principles of engaged research to become embedded in university cultures of research, however, fundamental changes are required at strategic and operational levels.


  3. Pingback: Your top 10 ESRC blogs from 2016 | ESRC blog

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