Defining impact - ESRC

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) defines research impact as the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy.

This can include both:

  • academic impact, which is the demonstrable contribution that excellent social and economic research makes in shifting understanding and advancing scientific method, theory and application across and within disciplines
  • economic and societal impact, which is the demonstrable contribution that excellent social and economic research has on society and the economy, and its benefits to individuals, organisations or nations.

The impact of research can include:

  • instrumental impact – influencing the development of policy, practice or services, shaping legislation and changing behaviour
  • conceptual impact – contributing to the understanding of policy issues and reframing debates
  • capacity building through technical and personal skill development.

The effects of knowledge exchange on impact

Knowledge exchange is fundamental to our understanding of what makes excellent research. It is the two-way exchange between researchers and research users to share:

  • ideas
  • research evidence
  • experiences
  • skills.

Knowledge exchange is often associated with activities that can be planned and costed, including:

  • seminars
  • workshops
  • placements
  • collaborative research.

However, good knowledge exchange is as much about approach, mindset, personal qualities and researcher mission.

This means that the scope of actions included in your impact plan should be wider rather than narrower in nature, and include ways of encouraging reflection, conceptual advancement and adjustment amongst the research team as well as users.

Learn more about knowledge exchange and the social sciences.

You can also see our guidance on effective knowledge exchange.

The effects of collaborative research on impact

Co-productive forms of research offer high potential for both academic and economic and social impact. It’s research that you carry out with people – rather than on them – in a collaborative, iterative process of shared learning.

We encourage such applications, which can include working with people in community, public policy and business settings. While it can be challenging, anecdotal feedback from researchers who have participated in co-production have reported benefits for their networks, job satisfaction and careers.

When applying for funding with us, you are encouraged to include proven and innovative methods for undertaking high quality collaborative research in your project. For example, you might:

  • include people from user organisations as co-investigators
  • request funding to meet the practical costs that research partners incur when they take part in co-production projects
  • include activities that enable innovation, reflection and negotiation at key points during your research, such as learning events with research partners.

These activities are entirely legitimate. When you create your impact plan you should consider how you will resource these types of co-productive activities in a focused way.

Other factors that support impact

We have identified some of the factors that help make an impact. These include:

  • establishing networks and relationships with research users
  • acknowledging the expertise and active roles played by research users in making impact happen
  • involving users at all stages of the research, including working with user stakeholder and participatory groups
  • having flexible knowledge exchange strategies that recognise the roles that partners and collaborators may play
  • developing good understanding of policy and practice contexts and encouraging users to bring knowledge of context to research
  • committing to portfolios of research activity that build up a strong reputation with research users
  • consistent working towards excellent infrastructure, leadership and management support
  • involving intermediaries and knowledge brokers as translators, amplifiers, network providers
  • supporting space and time for collaborative reflection on research design and process, findings and overall progress.

These develop over many years of research activity. They are helped by supportive institutional environments and plenty of practice and reflection with colleagues and users.

Last updated: 23 June 2022

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