Chasing the impact unicorn

Impact is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to impact.*


Impact is change. Simples. We just want it to be mind-bogglingly and intergalactically big because REF and funders and careers and stuff.  But sometimes we need to just go back to basics and think about what change really means.  And what it means for those our work reaches.

Perhaps we need to stop chasing some fantastical possibility.

Perhaps we need to stop chasing some mythical impact unicorn.

If only someone could write a blog (for NIHR) on that oh no wait I have how handy go look here right now.


* Kindly borrowed from Douglas Adams. I hope he’d approve

REF impact consultation 18/1/18: spoiler, no answers yet.

Yesterday I took part in a REF Impact consultation event in London. This workshop formed part of the broader consultation REF are undertaking with the sector to iron out some of the remaining issues following the ‘final decisions’ announced in November.  In attendance were several of the main panel chairs, sub-panel chairs, senior university staff and impact partners (eg. assessors from 2014)

The two key foci of this particular event were additionality (ie. how to accommodate continuing case studies) and expanding the underpinning research base (ie. addressing concerns over limiting case studies to a linear connection between ‘project’ and ‘effect’.  Let me start by saying immediately we don’t yet have the decisions about these.  The discussions reflected the complexity and implications surrounding these issues and doubtless REF have a huge job on their hands to wrestle with the breadth of feedback and areas of dissent.  This won’t be easy and it will have to balance a myriad of considerations.

However, several core messages came through strongly:

  • The REF team and main panel chairs were fully in agreement about their commitment to make the assessments fair and rigorous, and with recognition of the challenges/game playing last time.
  • There was general consensus that irrespective of whether something is continuing or not, the key question should be does it stand up as a case study in its own right?  Fairly ‘spirited’ discussions happened about how to articulate continuing impact, whether it should even be flagged, how it would be assessed etc. Ultimately everyone seemed to settle on simplicity and fairness being the main principles and that a continuing case study (or whatever it should be called) should be measured on its own merits.
  • The implications of broadening ‘underpinning research’ to loosen the linear connection between research and impacts and reflect a broader body of accumulate expertise were source of deep discussion.  There was real debate around where the lines should be drawn between broader research activities (not just for instance 2* papers) and those which are more engagement in character. Whilst superficially ‘broadening’ conceptually better values the academic lifecourse, it raises significant issues for assessment, judgement, and eligibility of materials for submissions.
  • All discussions reflected the broader sector and institutional challenges around impact management, assessment, narrative construction, implications for (eg) progression, incentivising short term vs long term impact and many other issues.
  • There is clear recognition that however ‘neat’ the decisions, these sit within a complex ecosystem and must be accompanied with clear guidance and underpinning principles. With institutional stakes high, and submissions so nuanced, text-only communication cannot ‘carry the burden’ of conveying such weighty expectations and must be complemented with broader communication and outreach.

The REF team will be holding several more consultations, and will be synthesising feedback into guidance following this. I don’t envy them at all, but after yesterday I’m convinced there is a real commitment to recognising – if not being able to fully accommodate – voices from the sector.



The psychology of being a patient with a chronic vascular condition. Or ‘the joy of DVTs’

Many of you will know about my health fun and games. And by fun and games I mean multiple deep vein thromboses (DVTs), those cocky little blood clots that keep colonising my left leg. The saga can probably be shorthanded to ‘9 years ago my veins decided that blood flow was overrated and shut up shop’.

Flippancy aside, the chronic pain and mobility difficulties have been horrendous, not to mention the impact on my family. And I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve ended up sobbing mid conference because of the pain of just ‘sitting’. Thankfully, overlooking the ‘unexpected clot incident of 2016‘, I’m generally far more mobile and my limp takes longer to kick in. And my walking stick now only gets broken out for special occasions.

Anyway fast forward to June 2017. I’ve been given the name of a fantastic specialist in London whose expertise may actually help fix me, when it seemed unfixable. (Spoiler, we still don’t know if it is, but let’s hope Thursday’s MRI scan shows something positive). I go for a consultation (which led to the MRI) and the discussion takes an unexpected turn. My consultant is concerned about how psychologically and emotionally difficult vascular problems can be for patients and and invites me (as a Health Psychologist) to help. Somehow.

The first step has been writing an invited commentary for ‘Venous News’, the professional magazine for vascular practitioners. This has been a chance to headline, as a patient and psychologist, the fallout of living with a long term condition. It’s a personal account, but far from unique and certainly mirrored across other conditions. I’m hopeful it helps build understanding of the invisible side of long term ill-health.

The opportunity to be able to use this pretty horrid experience, in a professional capacity, and maybe (*fingers crossed*) have some impact is a luxury many people don’t have.  I hope this is the start of a much longer journey to support patients and those clinicians who clearly care enormously about their patients’ welfare.

You can read the piece online (pg 10) or view as a pdf. Thanks to Mr Stephen Black and Venous News for the invitation.

For more information about DVTs check out @ThrombosisUK

“We’re more than REF people” – notes from the ARMA conference Impact SIG

Ok, so let’s just agree that my delay in writing up notes from the ARMA Impact SIG session again is an ‘endearing tradition’…….

Thanks to all of those who attended the SIG session at the annual conference in Liverpool this year.  Our impact community consistently showcases the collective experience, expertise and generosity which is driving impact and research management forward. It is always a pleasure to be part of those forums.

For those who weren’t able to join us, after a short presentation by Lizzie and myself on sector drivers, challenges and opportunities for impact, the assembled impactors (is this a word? *if not quickly coins*) discussed a range of issues for impact management in the current UK climate. Click here to read the full ARMA SIG 17 Discussion notes, but by way of summary:

  • In line with last year’s discussion, there is still a sense of poor recognition of the skills and expertise needed for impact. This continues to be compounded by eclectic job titles, job descriptions and role scope, alongside the common burden of being ‘stretched’ across the university to hunt down ‘nuggets‘ of impact gold.  There is an ongoing need to resource a stronger infrastructure within institutions to both ensure adequate provision is in place, and allow space and time for impact staff to develop.
  •  A common theme was the wish to drive home the message that impact managers are ‘not just REF people’.  Nor are they just nagging secretaries. Listening to SIG discussions, the professional resolve to ‘make research useful’ is continually and abundantly clear. That doesn’t mean the community’s eye isn’t on REF (how could it not be?), but that we are impassioned and committed to something more fundamental than a seven yearly assessment cycle. Perhaps our branding needs work……
  • The changeable research landscape presents challenges for establishing impact goalposts and engaging academics into the process. Whilst we now know more about REF2021, the fairly consistent picture painted about small, organisationally dispersed impact provision suggests that our institutions are not agile.  Given that we can’t just sit waiting for new rules, we must revisit our institutional set up and consider how to most effectively continue to operate and shift gear in response to sector changes.
  • Information management continues to be an issue, and whilst different universities are investing in different solutions, there remain issues for understanding what constitutes impact ‘data’, the skills needed to appraise impact related information and technical interoperability.  Activities to support this are ongoing, with a particular shout out to CASRAI (*holler*) for their work on harmonising impact information standards. Watch this space for updates….
  • Improving impact literacy and impact culture in organisations is, in effect, a product of doing all of the above (and more).  Our community is well aware of the achievements so far, but also work left to do to draw impact more securely into the academic process.
  • We should also connect multiple networks and embrace impact consultants. This is probably meant conceptually, but I for one am choosing to assume this means physically *awaits hugging opportunities*

As ever, our Impact SIG community represents the experiences and expertise at the heart of impact management.  Perhaps the increased weighting of impact from 20 to 25% for REF 2021 will galvanise the sector into more swift action to address the points above. The challenge and opportunity now is to harness this collective knowledge and connect ourselves and our networks to make it happen.

And consultants, sorry for the upcoming volume of hugs.

Gold panning small
old gold miner

UHCW Research Summit

I was DELIGHTED to speak at this year’s UHCW annual summit, having enjoyed last year’s so much. There was such a fabulous buzz and appetite for good practice that it was impossible not to be enthused! A fabulous job done by all.

My slides – if you want them – are here. The rest of the blog posts on this site cover some of the points in more detail too, but please get in touch if you want to chat further.

*drops impact mic* 

Coming to the ARMA 2017 conference? Feeling impact’y? Welcome!

If you’re heading to the ARMA conference for the first time…..welcome!!

The ARMA conference is the headline act for a busy annual programme of activity. The conference has grown substantially in recent years and offers a real showcase for the excellent work happening in the research management community. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to meet peers, share best practice and connect into sector wide activities. 

If you’re not already aware, there are a number of special interest groups (or SIGs) within ARMA. Each of the SIGs offer a space to share learning, update knowledge, ask questions and generally find support in a particular topic area. Each group will also have a timetabled session at the conference. The list of the current SIGs can be found here, and to join, just logon to the ARMA website and follow the instructions from SIG page. But let’s turn to my favourite…..

The Impact SIG is a group of like-minded (or sometimes disruptively minded – you know who you are….) people interested in all things ‘impact’. The SIG is led my Lizzie Garcha and myself, and we represent the impact community within ARMA. We also sit on the training committee so we can connect impact community ‘need’ with formal training provision. Our Impact SIG session at conference will provide delegates with an opportunity to join (or reconnect with) the community, network with those in similar roles, and discuss current issues in research impact. Please do come along, all are welcome!)
If you’d like to chat beforehand about the conference, ensure you have a familiar face to connect with or generally want to make best use of the event, please get in touch. There’s talk of SIG leads being rather more visible at conference (probably with fancier badges rather than neon tshirts), but whether we’re in sparkly hats or hiding out like ninjas, we’re very happy to chat. The chances are (*history suggests*) I’ll be on twitter before, during and after the event and very happy to answer any poignant or stupid questions. Likelihood is I’ll be asking the latter myself. We’re also keen to know if there’s anything people would particularly like to discuss/cover in the session – please let us know via email or using the comments box below if there is. 

So if you’re feeling impact’y and conference’y, get in touch, get involved and get connected. See you there!

Building an impact literate research culture: some thoughts for the KT Australia Research Summit

I was delighted to be asked to speak at the KT Australia Research Impact Summit (November 2016). In my talk, I discussed many of the challenges of introducing an impact agenda into the academic community, and how impact literacy can help. An extended version of my slides are here, but let me talk through the key points below.

Consider impact. A small word. A simple, standard part of our vocabulary meaning influence or effect. But go from (small i) impact to (big I) Impact, and you’ve suddenly entered the domain of formal assessment and causal expectations. Arguably the UK have been the first to really take the Impact bull formally by the horns through the Research Excellence Framework 2014, but of course efforts to drive research into usable practice are far from unique to this little island. Whilst every country is rich with learning about how knowledge best mobilises within its own context, the UK probably offers a unique insight into the realities of impact assessment at scale and the multiple, non-prescribable pathways connecting research to effect.

First principles: impact is the provable effects of research in the real world (see slides 2 and 3).  It’s the changes we can see (demonstrate, measure, capture), beyond academia (in society, economy, environment) which happen because of our studies (caused by, contributed to, attributable to). Dissemination, communication, engagement, knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange and knowledge mobilisation are all vital in getting research into practice, but in its truest form, ‘impact’ is the protected description of the resulting change.

Largely speaking, impact has three main drivers (slide 4): funders (who increasingly require impact plans for research to be judged competitively), centralised assessment (eg the Research Excellence Framework, UK) and the individual academic’s commitment to social, economic or environmental change. Formal sector expectations such as the REF are a double edged sword. On one side they legitimate engagement and outreach activities which can be disregarded in income/publication focused environments.  On the other however,  they can confer unrealistic expectations on those disciplinary areas (eg. fundamental research)  whose work does not naturally connect directly to ‘real world change’.  Even where academics are personally committed to impact, the weight of complying with assessment rhetoric can corrode even the most impassioned resolve.

Impact offers challenges to academics and the institution alike (slide 5). For the academic, weaving impact into already pressured environments can be exhausting, and the unease of meeting expectations for impacts that are ‘significant’ enough for external assessment can trigger anxiety and anger. For the institution, staffing, resourcing and embedding impact within existing structures whilst ensuring assessment requirements are met is extremely tough.  Similarly we must remember and address the challenges for the beneficiaries themselves. The ‘users’ of our work are concerned with how well the research fits their needs, and how accessible and useful it is.  Unless work is appropriate and suitable for the audience, it’s unlikely to achieve its impact aims and will just introduce more burden into the user community.

So how can we do impact well? After several years in impact I’ve enjoyed/ burned my fingers on a considerable volume of training, planning/strategy building, designing information management systems and building impact into a university culture,  alongside academic research in the area and (health psychology) research submitted to REF. It’s hard to disentangle the discrete elements of the impact process, which probably explains why I’ve had my fingers in quite so many pies.  I have discussed the challenges still facing the impact community before, and how a reductionist, assessment driven approach can lead to impact short-sightedness.  However, academics have an amazing and very privileged opportunity to make a genuine and meaningful difference to the ‘real world’. For this, the research community needs to understand how to make impact happen. The research community needs to be impact literate.

Impact literacy (slide 6, a term coined by myself and Dr David Phipps, York University, Toronto) describes individuals’ ability to understand, appraise and make decisions with regards to impact.  Impact literacy involves understanding how the what (type, indicators and evidence of benefit),  how (activities and engagement processes) and who (individuals’ skills and roles) of impact combine to produce effects.  Impact literacy supports good decision making, clear planning and realistic methodologies.  Impact can be pursued without being literate, but this is likely to lead to poor execution, missed opportunities, poor resource use and misaligned or underachieved targets. A person is only literate if they understand each of the three areas. If one is missing, thinking is incomplete:

  • How + Who (without What) gives poor consideration to endpoints/effects
  • How + What (without Who) neglects the importance of individual efforts and skills
  • Who + What (without How) overlooks the need for appropriate engagement methods

We can and should also extend literacy beyond the individual and build an impact literate research culture (slide 7). With all the challenges to delivering impact within a pressured academic environment, it’s essential that institutions align their internal structures to supporting delivery. Bluntly put, you can only measure what you create, so start working together from the start.  Academics need to build partnerships and translate research into suitable formats, whilst the institution values, resources and builds strategic connections beyond the institution (‘How’). Academics and research managers also need to recognise their own skills/training needs, and share/partner with others, whilst the institution must commit to professional development and clarifying roles (‘Who’). Academics must work with end-users to establish suitable goals and ways to measure them, whilst the institution must offer the strategic and systems support to manage this information (‘What’).

The process of building a positive and impact-literate culture is of course beyond the scope of one talk. It is an ongoing process and takes continued strategic and individual commitment.  But if we really want impact, and good impact at that, we must focus on improving the knowledge, skills and confidence of academics and research managers across the institution. An impact literate culture is one in which people know what’s needed and how they contribute. A positive culture is one in which they know that contribution is valued.

So if you’re trying to build impact into your institution, my top tips would be (slide 8):

  1. Embed impact into the research process. If you’re going to create real benefits, impact has to be integrated from the start and not treated as a post-project add-on.
  2. Recognise one size doesn’t fit all.  Impact cannot be templated. It is always unique to the project, discipline and it’s place along the fundamental-to-applied continuum. Tailor your thinking.
  3. Harness and build skills within the institution. Create your ‘impact agency’ by  developing impact literacy,  competencies and connections between colleagues.
  4. Engage not enrage. Impact is a small word with big implications. Give people time to adjust and build a strong approach together.

Remember (slide 9): Impact is achievable. But it’s not simple. Value the people involved and their efforts, support the processes and connect researchers, users and research meaningfully. Just imagine what’s possible if you do 🙂

Life, the universe and impact: notes from the ARMA Impact SIG

Life, the universe and impact: notes from the ARMA Impact SIG

It has taken me a shamefully long time to share the discussions from the Impact SIG session at ARMA 2016. Huge apologies. Life, leg and why-have-the-children-nicked-my-laptop-again are main culprits, But don’t worry, I will take myself to the naughty step and lose my own iPad privileges.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed to the session. It really was a wonderfully energised discussion, and so lovely to see our growing impact community share so much good practice. You can see the notes here (as copied directly from the discussion sheets). Undoubtedly there is further work need to unpack these areas and consider viable solutions, but they are presented in full as ‘food for thought’.

In addition to the notes, here’s a few additional summary points. I welcome other thoughts / interpretations etc of what was said, but the main threads coming out seemed to be:

  • We (impact professionals) are still trying, within our individual institutions, to find the ‘best way’ to ‘do impact’. Every institution is doing it differently and there’s no single solution.
  • As a professional community we haven’t yet cemented our identity; within our group we know the efforts, skills and specialisms needed to deliver impact. However it isn’t necessarily recognised more widely, making professional development difficult.
  • We operate as the link between the institutional/sector requirements and the academic. This brings challenges and tensions in managing expectations, building a positive impact culture and linking a laudable agenda with an assessment driven strategy.  Those new to impact can draw on the tried and tested methods of the more battleworn veterans……!
  • With the shifting sands around the next REF, we need strong, knowledgeable and skilled impact staff. Unless impact is treated as more than just an entry in an information system, we will always struggle to generate the impact we hope to capture.
  • Information management remains a challenge. New and increasingly established systems are welcomed, but there are still difficulties in (e.g.) tracking effects, comparing impact types and interoperability.
  • Co-creation of impact is valued, but it can be difficult to achieve when academics and ‘real people’ use different languages.  It also takes a long time to build the necessary trust.
  • Impact storytelling is a skilled process. From selecting the story to writing a compelling evidence based narrative, care must be taken to ‘get this right’. This requires clarity on individual roles and the nature of what counts as ‘good’, along with the development of skills to write for different audiences.  Storytelling in its many forms may benefit from external input and advice.

So where do we go from here? A clear tone of the group was the need for a clearer professional identity – made difficult, we recognise, by the breadth of activities undertaken within the ‘impact banner’. Through sharing best practice (and ‘never try that again’ practice), we are building the critical understanding of how impact works on the ground and how to best support and manage it.  This will help us cut through institutional siloing and impact firefighting that can – if left unchecked – pervade the research sector. The ARMA Impact SIG and ARMA Training and Development Committee will actively work to reinforce good practice and professional identity through networking and skills based capacity building.  This can and will extend beyond a single conference session; we’re just in the midst of working out how!

A firm takeaway message for me is the sheer commitment and energy of the impact community. Such an enthusing crowd to be part of! So whilst the sector is still working out the ultimate question of life, the universe and impact, let’s keep building our community, our networks and our identity.  And drink lots of tea / wine / gin* (delete as appropriate).

Strengthening impact through people. Or ‘Why REF is like your mother in law’

It’s clear that impact is growing swiftly within international research agendas.  I’ve had many discussions recently with colleagues across various ponds for whom the dark cloud of impact is looming. Many seem to be looking to the UK to learn from our REF experience, and to be frank that’s not a bad idea at all.  Where impact is concerned it’s fair to say the UK is both specialised and battle-worn in equal measure. Unlike many of our international peers, our sector has been driven by centralised impact assessment, rather than broader dialogues of ‘benefits’ and ‘knowledge mobilisation’.  It is an approach with pros and cons, many of which we’re still unpicking.  Certainly the wonderfully engaged discussion at the recent ARMA Impact Special Interest Group (SIG) meeting at the annual conference shows just how much we still need to do to integrate, normalise and support impact in its most meaningful terms.

Impact for many of us is a good thing.  We welcome the focus on positively influencing the world beyond the university walls, and let’s face it, this in itself is not a new agenda.  For applied researchers (myself very much included), we have always sought to qualitatively contribute solutions to social problems.  However the more formal assessment driven (REF) impact agenda shifts such virtuous rhetoric towards reductionism and selectivity. REF is a bit like your mother in law who manages to completely overlook the 6 hours of cleaning you’ve done and focus instead on the speck of dust you’ve left behind the TV. It’s a one-off assessment which ignores how frantically you’ve cooked, ironed, and incentivised-your-children-to-behave-less-like-chimps. And like REF, usually results in a large glass of wine.

I don’t say this to dismiss REF.  If anything, REF has accelerated the importance of impact within academia and for that I am thankful.  With the puerile analogy above aside, I strongly urge those for whom impact is emerging to really take time to consider how impact ‘works’.  A formal impact agenda raises challenges across the academic sector, arguably posing most difficulties for fundamental research and that with less easily measurable endpoints (eg. arts and humanities).  Assessment-driven approaches risk reducing impact value to a small subset of narrowly demonstrated effects.  Unless we approach impact literately* and meaningfullywe will only ever firefight paths towards social effects.

In all of this, it’s crucial too that we don’t ignore the people.  Obviously it’s vital that we engage stakeholders and consider wider public benefit, and there’s excellent thought-leadership in these areas. However here I’m referring to a different group – impact practitioners themselves, be they the academic driving their own work or a research manager supporting a broader programme of work.  The impact sector has grown rapidly within the UK, and – as demonstrated through the wealth of experience and expertise in the ARMA Impact SIG – the sector would be foolish not to recognise the skills and capabilities so fundamental to translating research into effects.

Reducing impact to a measured subset of effects obscures the expertise needed for knowledge brokerage, culture change, partnership management, strategic planning and reconfiguration and many other things in combination.  If we are to create ‘good impact’ we need to recognise and invest in professional development amongst all those supporting this agenda.  And avoid bolting impact on as an afterthought. And understand how assessment models may drive behaviour. And how this may be judged by a Mother-in-Law-dust-seeking review**.

Let’s make the research count.  Properly.

*Impact literacy paper to come with the brilliant Dr David Phipps!! (@Researchimpact)

**My mother in law likes me. At least she hasn’t said otherwise




Dear predatory journal….

I am sick of predatory journals. I’m sick of them emailing me with invites to submit to their ‘doesn’t at all fit the research I do’ remit, and even worse doing so with mixed fonts…..

I’m most sick though of two things:

Firstly, the money they fraudulently obtain by trading off the academic pressure to ‘publish or perish’. These pariahs are quite happy to steal money from tight research budgets and hang often new researchers out to dry.

Secondly, the way they magic-up an editorial board using the images and names of real people. Real professionals who’ve worked hard to build their reputation. This case from Coventry shows how easy it is for good people to suddenly find their good name has been used to legitimise fakery.

Apart from not submitting to these journals, it’s hard to practically challenge the first point. But we must train our academic communities to be alert and recognise the signs. Keep em peeled (as an 80s UK crime show used to say)

On the second point – my new policy when I’m invited by Predatorosaur is to check the editorial board and contact those listed. Sure some are also likely fake, but if you were a real academic and your name and face were used, wouldn’t you want someone to alert you???

I’ve been chased by a particular Predatorosaur over the last few weeks. And let’s say they were getting a teensy bit double glazing salesman about the whole thing. I fully expected them to turn up at my door with a brochure and an unwillingness to leave. So I decided to go all Poirot….long story short you will be unsurprised to know that the listed senior editor (a medical professor in America) had never heard of them. *shock*. She is now taking steps to have her name removed and I’m contacting the other authors asap.

Friends, Romans, countrymen…..when you too get a fake journal email, consider letting the people whose faces have been stolen know. I know I’d appreciate it. Bet you would too.

And if you’re interested, here’s my reply to Predatorosaur.