The UK Research Councils have required applicants to submit impact plans (“Pathways to Impact”) as part of research proposals since 2009 so they’ve been around for a while now. Still, researchers often struggle to understand what they’re being asked for and how to fulfil these requirements. Pathways to Impact is often the last piece that’s written, squeezed in just before submission as one of the lower-priority parts of a proposal. I have written about why we need to give more priority to Pathways to Impact and treat it as a major opportunity rather than another piece of bureaucracy. This post sets out how to write a Pathways to Impact statement.
The UK Research Councils are responsible for spending around £3 billion on research each year. This is public money which might otherwise go into schools, police, health/social care and so on. Thus there is an expectation that researchers bidding for these funds show the wider relevance and potential benefit (beyond academia) of their work and plot appropriate steps to begin to deliver on this potential. It is these steps which should be captured in the Pathways to Impact.
Many other funders have their own requirements for impact/dissemination/exploitation plans. This guidance is written with the Research Councils’ Pathways to Impact statement clearly in mind but the principles and logic apply wherever you need to present impact plans.
Academics are often uneasy with the idea of planning impact. You can’t predict the future. You don’t know how or when your work might become relevant. You don’t control the external context. Even if there is some chance of impact, you can’t deliver it – other people do. The benefits of research often unfold over a very long timescales. How can you be asked to plan for all this? Isn’t impact planning essentially just lying to get funding? These would all be valid concerns IF funders were asking you to predict the future and make it happen, but they’re not.
Funders are asking you to take a reasonable view of who might potentially benefit from your work and what you can do to increase the chances of that benefit happening. It’s all about this potential and how you can help things along. They understand it may not pan out as plotted in your Pathways to Impact but whatever direction and form things take, if you’ve considered potential benefits and beneficiaries (and budgeted accordingly) then you’ll be better placed to create and respond to opportunities. This way the benefits are more likely to be realised than if your research sits in a journal waiting to be found.
Most academics I speak with have some inkling of their potential impact. This guidance is about developing those initial thoughts into plans. If you have no idea where to start in terms of your potential impact then I’d recommend you speak with colleagues (academics and impact/funding development staff in your university) or someone like me.
The impact component of proposals is addressed in two parts:
- Impact Summary: a text box in the Je-S online form. This is a 4000 character statement of who (beyond academia) might benefit from the proposed research and how.
- Pathways to Impact: a separate document, up to 2 sides of A4 (font size 11, 2cm margins, etc). It should build on the who and how in the Impact Summary and set out what will be done to maximise potential benefits.
I recommend focusing on the Pathways to Impact (hence this post) and the Impact Summary should hopefully drop out afterwards.
I don’t want to set out a template for Pathways to Impact as each plan should be authentic, specific and relevant to the proposed research. What I will do is suggest an outline structure which will help you address the required points in a logical flow.
Start with a summary (around 1/3 of a page) of the main objectives or deliverables of the proposed research. Say which of these have the potential for non-academic impact, stating broadly who (what types of stakeholder, sectors, etc) will benefit and how. This introduction may repeat what you write elsewhere in the proposal but often the Pathways to Impact is the first rich, substantial document that appears in the long pdf that the Je-S system generates for reviewers. It makes sense to have a reasonable introduction here. Also, repeating certain key ideas (e.g. overarching objectives or vision) in the same terms throughout the proposal reinforces the point of your proposal, helps reviewers to quickly “get it” and means panel members can easily pitch your proposal to colleagues on prioritisation panels.
2. Development and engagement activities for each stakeholder group
Having set the scene, you now need to go into detail about how you will engage with each stakeholder group. This needs to be broken down by group and the way you do this will depend on the nature of your work. As a starting point I’d suggest breaking this into 2-3 sections using headings such as “Impact on industry” and “Impact on policy” or you could choose to break it down by sector, e.g. research on sea-level rise might have sections for impact on marine management, coastal infrastructure and coastal communities. If you have too many sections, you won’t be able to do justice to each and it may seem that you lack focus. If you have too few, it may appear that you haven’t fully thought through the potential. It’s up to you to find the best way of presenting this – you may well need a few iterations.
For each of these sections:
- Identify the key organisations and people you need to engage with and how they will benefit from the research. You should at least be naming the organisations, even better if you can name the right departments and people. You want to show that you have a real route in, you’re not just speculating that they’ll be interested. Ultimately you will be able to show how these organisations have already been involved in planning the research. If this is the case and they are willing to provide a letter supporting the project then they can be entered in Je-S as a Project Partner. The letter should show how they are contributing to the project. This could be in the form of direct (i.e. cash) or indirect (e.g. providing advice, data, equipment, undertaking development or dissemination) contributions.
- Say what you will do to engage with these partners, make the research useful to them and help them embed it. These activities need to be tailored to the stakeholder and might involve meetings, placements, reports and briefings, training, developing research outputs to make them more usable (e.g. building prototypes, toolkits, resources, putting a user interface on software), public engagement, attending conferences and events, etc. These activities will usually have costs associated with them. Specify these costs as you describe each activity, include them in your costing and account for them in the Justification of Resources.
- Discuss timing. Some activities and stakeholders need to be engaged from the start (e.g. if they have a stake in the research design or if they hold critical data), others will only be engaged later when you have something to show them. The way you treat timing issues is often a marker of how serious your plans are. Hurriedly written impact plans often don’t consider timing or default to leaving all the impact and engagement activities to the end of the project.
3. A final section on costs, milestones/timescales, management and evaluation
This section (around 1/3 of a page) should round things out by describing some of the project management aspects.
- Costs. Summarise the total costs associated with the Pathways to Impact plan and make sure this tallies with the Justification of Resources and the costing in the Je-S form.
- Milestones and timescales. If you have considered timing alongside each activity as suggested above then there’s no need to repeat all that here. However, it can be helpful to reviewers (and for you and fellow investigators) to include a simple Gantt-type chart to show how things fit together. Ideally your impact plans will be truly integrated with the research elements, in which case include the impact plans in the overall project Gantt chart/workplan (maybe part of the Case for Support, maybe a separate attachment depending on scheme and Research Council). If you do this, make sure you provide suitable signposting in the Pathways to Impact.
- Management. The plans described in the Pathways to Impact are effectively a sub-project or work package of the proposal so state who is responsible for overseeing and carrying out impact activities. Again, ideally the impact elements should be integrated into the research project meaning any management plan in the proposal should consider impact management alongside management of the research. If you do this, again make sure you provide suitable signposting in the Pathways to Impact.
- Evaluation, success measures, key performance indicators. How will you track the progress of your impact plan? How will you know if you’ve succeeded in having impact? How will you evaluate the extent of your impact? In my experience, this kind of information won’t make or break your Pathways to Impact but given that impact is a big factor in the REF, it seems a good idea to give some thought to these questions. Thinking about evaluation at this stage will help you to gather the right kinds of information as you go along. It may be that your partners are routinely collecting or generating such information which means you don’t need to.
What makes a great Pathways to Impact?
- Clear identification of beneficiaries, activities and deliverables.
- Good consideration of a range of relevant potential impacts. Think about potential benefits and beneficiaries across industry/business, policy/practitioners/regulation and the public.
- Appropriate track record of impact and engagement where this applies to the stakeholders and activities identified in the current plan. Don’t simply state your track record as an indicator that good things will happen. Your track record is only meaningful when it shows you have the links and experience to deliver on the current plans.
- Co-production and involvement of stakeholders right from the planning/scoping stages of the research. This shows their buy-in and commitment. If they are present as Project Partners (providing a letter stating their direct or indirect contribution to the research) then even better. NOTE: the ideal kinds of relationship with stakeholder don’t just happen when you’re writing a proposal. You need to nurture these links over the long term and from time to time you may call on them to be involved in your research proposals. If you’re an early career researcher then start building links now.
- Timing activities so that impact and engagement develop over the course of the project, maybe as key research outputs are delivered or as required to best fit the needs of stakeholders.
- Active language (e.g. we will…, this will enable…).
- A focus on how your research will be used, rather than how it will be disseminated.
What if your research doesn’t have impact?
Once upon a time I was leading a training session on Pathways to Impact and a physicist asked me what possible use there might be for research on gravitational waves. A pure mathematician responded, “You think you’ve got problems? I can’t even explain my research to non-mathematicians!”
RCUK states that the “pathways to impact will apply for the vast majority of proposals” and that exceptions will be few and far between. Most academics I deal with have some idea of their potential impact, some starting point. However in a small number of areas this really is challenging. Still, RCUK are clear that they expect you to give it a shot.
There is a get-out clause (“In the few exceptions where this is not the case, the Pathways to Impact statement should be used to fully justify the reasons why this is not possible”) but don’t be tempted to take this option as the Research Council will almost certainly come back to you asking for an “acceptable” Pathways to Impact.
In my experience, there is always some way of putting together an “acceptable” impact plan even in those tricky areas, it just requires close attention on a case-by-case basis.
If I’ve missed anything or if you have your own top tips then I’d love to hear from you in the comments or feel free to get in touch.