Finding ways to extend and evidence the impact of research beyond academia is a priority for universities. To help them with work in this area, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education has developed a new evidence-based framework.
The economic and political stakes for universities are too high for senior managers and research leaders not to invest time and thought in how to deliver impact.
The Research Excellence Framework (REF), Research Councils UK and other funders now allocate a significant proportion of funding based on impact, or plans for it.
Investing in impact could include addressing such questions as: What might impactful research outputs and outcomes look like in the contexts we are working in? What type of research designs can help to generate impact? What types of knowledge, skills and ways of working are needed for impact? Which stakeholders may help to generate impact?
These questions are often bigger than individual researchers or research programmes. They also concern the wider system.
Recognising the growing importance of impact for universities, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education commissioned a study of impact from leadership, governance and management case studies in REF 2014.
The study analysed over 1,000 impact case studies to identify how research had led to change, made a difference or had impact.
Impact related to diverse contexts, such as education, the police, the armed forces, business and industry, health and social care, tourism and sports science.
Adaptive System Framework for Advancing Research
The Adaptive System Framework for Advancing Research (AS-FAR) is one of several tools developed from the research.
AS-FAR, (see the chart below), is designed to be used as a unifying framework to enable:
- university leaders and research managers to develop strategies and capacity for impact
- researchers and stakeholders to plan routes to research impact and to report on how impact was achieved
- educators, supervisors and mentors to support impact knowledge and skills development
- evaluators to increase the transparency of decisions about the assessment of impact.
Dynamism of impact
AS-FAR is based on a systems approach, which challenges simple cause-and-effect assumptions about research impact.
Instead, it sees impact as a dynamic process where the interactions and relationships of different components simultaneously affect and are shaped by the system.
It recognises the active role of researchers, stakeholders, research users and the public in generating impact in different parts of the system.
AS-FAR sets out a broad horizon for the potential beneficiaries of academic research, including stakeholders (such as policymakers or commissioners), researchers (and collaborators), research users (people directly using the research), and end users (such as the public or service users).
This breadth can accommodate understandings of impact that extend beyond institutional definitions, or the scope of REF.
It allows a way forward for adaption and development of impact from the perspective of different players in the system.
A consistent language
Different types of impact can include: use of research evidence (type I), use of research products (type II), effects on individuals (type III), and effects on groups and organisations (type IV).
AS-FAR does not assume that impact will always occur or be detectable or sustained, or that one type of impact will lead to another.
It does, however, provide a consistent language to communicate about these complex issues.
Range of impact processes
AS-FAR illustrates the range of impact processes through which impact may be generated, alongside research processes.
For example, impact can be guided through boundaries between research, education and practice, if researchers find mechanisms to enable freer dissemination and diffusion across them.
Cooperation, coalitions and networks of interaction emerge, and feed back to influence researcher skills and knowledge.
The standardised, and simplified, structure of AS-FAR facilitates comparison of approaches to generating impact, across projects and programmes, and over time, which is useful for improving the design, management and resourcing of impact work: for example, evaluating decisions about the involvement of end users in knowledge exchange activities throughout the research process.
Such engagement may help to legitimise decisions about the research and its outcomes and to think through possible unintended or harmful effects before they arise.
Senior managers and research leaders can use AS-FAR to consider how best to support researchers: for example, in developing impactful research outputs, or drawing together organisational knowledge and expertise to implement and evaluate impact.
Support could include defining team roles for impact or putting guidance in place, so that impact is considered, identified and reviewed in a way that propagates impact.
In terms of reporting on impact, AS-FAR can help researchers to build a narrative that explains the routes to impact they have used.
It offers language to describe types of impact and levels of impact that emerge from the research.
By adapting the framework, using scales or measures that are appropriate to the research context, researchers could build stronger claims to impact.
Better understanding of impact
Evidence-based tools, like AS-FAR, can enable understandings about the diverse nature of impacts and how they arise.
If integrated into research training or support staff induction programmes, AS-FAR may encourage staff to see research impact as a system that they can make use of, rather than simply a set of skills or abilities that they should acquire.
The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education is currently developing The Research Leader’s Impact Toolkit to support universities in their impact work.
Impact no doubt arises serendipitously from research, but to maximise the benefits, research investment planning and forethought also have a role to play.
More impact, better impact and faster impact are all likely to come from a more considered approach to impact. That considered approach, however, is challenging because of the complex and multi-faceted ways in which impact arises.
AS-FAR acknowledges this complexity, but expresses it in a way that has the potential to facilitate many aspects of research impact, including planning and reporting.
Developing and using tools that allow an increasingly sophisticated understanding of research impact will play a key role in delivering benefits from research.
This blog post is based on the report ‘The impact of higher education leadership, management and governance research: Mining the 2014 Research Excellence Framework impact case studies’, April 2016.
This report presents analysis of 1,309 impact case studies from the fields of leadership, governance and management research from 131 universities. A summary report and the full report are available online to members of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.
About the report’s authors
Professor Fiona Ross CBE (@LF4HE) is Director of Research at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.
Elizabeth M Morrow (@elizabethmmorr1) is an independent researcher based in Northern Ireland. She is interested in the power and politics of research practice.
Steven Hill (@stevenhill) is Head of Research and Health Policy at HEFCE.