Not a Requiem for Impact

Late last week a leaked internal memo from UK Research & Innovation was published by Research Professional News that indicated the UK government is set to remove “pathways to impact” from all UK grant forms to reduce the administrative burden for grant seekers, reviewers and funders. This has introduced a seismic shock to the UK research impact sector. Don’t panic, impact peeps! Our work will still be valued but in a different – and more effective – manner.

This leaked memo promoted a lot of twitter activity from impact-focused UK stakeholders including the many impact professionals who have been developing the UK research impact sector since before REF 2014 when impact was included in university research assessment.

James Wilsdon published his article, “A requiem for impact” on WonkHE on Monday. The original article ended with the fact that impact is here to stay especially with the increase of impact from 20% in REF 2014 to 25% in REF 2021. Echoing this, Wilsdon writes “this move is a reflection of impact’s maturity and the extent to which is has now been mainstreamed within research culture and practice.”

In Canada we have never adopted an explicit pathway to impact approach, but all our federal and health charity funding programs have required an impact (i.e. knowledge translation/mobilization or commercialization) strategy as a stand-alone section of the application. However, in the most recent funding program launched by the tri councils (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canadian Institutes of Health Research), the New Frontiers in Research Fund (both the small Exploration and the large Transformation) are high risk, high reward interdisciplinary programs designed to address (ie solve) a significant social, economic, environmental, health or cultural challenge. These funds are awarded based on the ability to address a challenge – i.e. make an impact beyond scholarship.

Based on what we have seen so far (the guidelines and forms aren’t available for Transformation) there is no separate impact strategy, but impact needs to be baked into the main body of the proposal. I think this is an excellent approach:

  • it requires applicants to think of impact as an embedded part of the application, not as a stand-alone item that can be tossed together separately from the research proposal, usually at the last minute
  • It means peer reviewers have to assess the application on all its merits, not make an award for excellent science despite a less than excellent impact section
  • It embeds impact throughout the research process (=integrated KT for CIHR) and hopefully reduces the dependence on dissemination (=end of grant KT for CIHR) methods which we know from the literature on impact are not enough to drive change

And finally, it illustrates what Wilsdon has hypothesized, that impact has matured and is now being mainstreamed in research policy and practice.

My prediction, agreeing with Wilsdon, is that research impact is becoming a mainstream part of research funding and assessment. There will always be the need for impact professionals and for impact tools to support the maturing impact agenda. And hopefully we will be engaged early in the research cycle and not just in an ex-post fashion for assessment driven systems like the REF.


Written by David J. Phipps, Ph.D., MBA

Executive Director, Research & Innovation Services

Division of Vice-President Research & Innovation, Office of Research Services – York University