Chasing the ‘impact unicorn’ – myths and methods in demonstrating research benefit’.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) blog

Whilst academics and clinicians alike are well aware of the need to ‘make research useful’, formal expectations around impact have pushed us to assume only large scale effects are ‘worthy’.

With continued pressure to secure funding and ‘do more with less’, assessment driven thinking and impact measures such as the Research Excellence Framework 2014/2021 risk overshadowing the most basic of principles – that research – of any type, scale, or subject can do good in the world.

NIHR has always been anchored in improving patient care and wellbeing, and so investigators have a genuine opportunity to connect research with patient benefit. The challenge is how can this be done? How do we get back to basics in this pressured environment? In my experience as an academic, impact lead and formerly Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) impact champion, there are numerous unhelpful myths which derail impact. So let’s rebuild.

First the myths……

Myth 1: Impact is something big which happens at (or beyond) the end of a research project.

No. Impact is a change, irrespective of its size, nature or timing. Impact is the provable benefit of research in the real world. Of course we want the biggest and best effects we can get, but if we only gaze at a longer term fantasy we’re blinkered to the smaller, stepwise changes that get us there. We need to reset our thinking to recognise the value of those necessary milestones such as improved clinician knowledge and skills) which pave the way to something bigger including improved accuracy of diagnosis and treatment). Unless we focus on realistic steps, we will forever chase an elusive impact unicorn.

Myth 2: Only applied research has impact

Compared to applied research, fundamental research undoubtedly requires several more steps in the translational chain before it reaches impact. However, even though it can take many years to mature, such research often starts an impact marathon with multiple baton passes: new knowledge may be cited by those in another discipline, which forms the basis for a new method, which is integrated into a new technique, which is trialled in practice and so on. The challenge (and opportunity) is to map those forward steps.

Myth 3: You can’t plan impact

It’s true impact cannot be templated. Analysis of REF case studies showed over 3,700 distinct impact pathways, proving there’s no one size fits all. However, it isn’t true it can’t be planned. Whilst there is always the possibility of unexpected impact, planning impact can help us to identify:

  • What effects are possible, most appropriate, when they may happen and what measures or indicators might be used (eg.Patient Reported Outcome Measures (PROMS))
  • Stakeholders, including public and patient involvement
  • Identifying risks to getting research into practice – what regulatory hurdles need to be overcome? Who might object to the work? How likely will the research enter the care pathway?

Towards opportunities….

As the sector’s impact learning curve accelerates, two key opportunities for strengthening our impact are clear:

Opportunity 1: Building impact literacy

The opportunity for all those involved in health-related research is to become impact literate. That is, to understand what impact the research may have and for who, how research can be mobilised to action, and what skills are needed to make this happen. More fundamentally thinking about impact needs to start from ‘why’, understanding the meaning, purpose and ethics which should lead decisions about impact possibilities.

Since first publishing on impact literacy in 2017, impact has been cemented further into research consciousness, and it’s clear that deeper understanding is needed at both the individual and institutional levels. Earlier this year we published a new impact literacy paper, detailing both individual and organisational dimensions, alongside how levels of impact literacy can be developed. The new model is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Revised model of Impact literacy (2019*, updated from 2017)New IL diagram

Opportunity 2: Building competencies

Alongside developing understanding we must develop skills. Impact doesn’t just happen, people make it happen. This process of translating research into tangible effects takes effort, and professional development is crucial for strengthening impact across the research community.


So let’s return to basics. Impact is a change, of whatever magnitude, type or flavour. It is the shorthand for ‘doing good from research’ and depends on us thinking about the chains, connections and people between research and effects. We can empower ourselves with the skills and understanding to judge how impact best works for our research, and develop fair, measured and proportionate expectations.

Ask yourself: how can you make impact fantasy into reality?


*Bayley, J and Phipps, D (2019). Extending the concept of research impact literacy: levels of literacy, institutional role and ethical considerations [version 1; peer review: 1 approved] Emerald Open Research, 1:14 (