Celebrating Pathways to Impact

Next year the UK Research Councils’ infamous “Pathways to Impact” will be 10 years old. But who will be celebrating? Who even realises?

I started working at the Research Councils in 2009 when “Impact Plans”, as they were known in the beginning, were born. The idea was that given the amount of public money going into research, partly on the back of lobbying placing universities as engines of the economy, academics should be prepared to articulate the wider potential benefits of their work and how they might help things along.

To me, fresh out of postdoctoral research, the impact agenda was new but it didn’t seem unreasonable. However, academics took a lot of coaching to understand what they were being asked to do and why. Other funders have followed suit in asking for impact plans so has the community come to embrace Pathways to Impact and its kind? From my point of view, as someone who works with academics to help them win funding and increase the impact of their research, I would say… partially. But there’s still a long way to go.

I believe impact is an inherent part of a socially-aware, publicly-funded academia. However, if the idea of impact for its own sake didn’t grab people, the inclusion of impact in REF2014 definitely focussed minds. If universities want to take part in REF (and reap the rewards in terms of reputation and funding) then they need to show their contribution to the world. So the UK has a research system where academics are able to plan and cost impact at the outset of their research and then later get rewarded for demonstrating the impact they’ve achieved. It’s almost as if someone designed it.

Still, I feel we’re not making the most of the opportunity presented by the Pathways to Impact statement (and equivalent impact/dissemination/exploitation plans required by other funders). Everyone focuses on the assessment end – REF impact case studies – rather than the inputs. So why should we give impact plans more love?

  1. The best way to achieve impact is to build it in from the start. Answering the right questions in the right ways, building partnerships, engaging stakeholders, exchanging knowledge, translating research outputs into other forms – these are all more effective when they are properly integrated and resourced.
  2. “Impact thinking” often means higher-quality, more fundable research proposals. When you’re talking to stakeholders and considering the wider context around your research, you’re better equipped to show importance and timeliness, you benefit from the input of industry, policy and other experts to help plan and steer the project, you can access unique resources (facilities, data, field sites, etc) and the proposal just feels more “together” and well-thought-out to reviewers. Who knows – your partners may even offer a cash contribution to the research!
  3. Two grants for the effort of one. If you don’t consider impact now, you may well find yourself applying for a separate “impact” grant later. A whole new proposal when you could have just written it into the original! Definitely a case of working smarter not harder. Get two grants for the effort of one while making it more fundable? Surely a no-brainer. Don’t worry if you feel you’re making a commitment you’re not sure you can keep. This is all about spotting and nurturing potential, not delivering on promises. You can use the impact funds whatever direction your impact takes.
  4. It saves rewriting later. Research Councils ask that you provide an “acceptable” Pathways to Impact statement before they release any funding. Even if they are desperate to fund your research, you can’t start the grant if your Pathways to Impact isn’t up to scratch. Instead you’ll have to rewrite the Pathways until the funder is happy with it. At this point, you can’t include more costs so you’ll have to conjure up an impact plan with no supporting resources! Avoid this frustration by getting it right in the first place.

Whatever your view of impact plans (maybe “unnecessary bureaucracy” or “important but not a priority”), it’s hard to deny there’s a big opportunity here. As we approach this tenth anniversary, I say it’s time to truly embrace Pathways to Impact.

This piece was written for Emerald’s Real World Impact blog.

You can find my take on how to write a Pathways to Impact statement here.

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