Looking at NIHR’s research through the lens of impact

This post originally appeared on the NIHR website.

By Adam Kamenetzky

As people gather for the 2017 Health and Care Innovation Expo, Adam Kamenetzky reflects on how the ‘impact agenda’ provides a sophisticated opportunity to understand how research benefits society.

I’m not going to lie… As part of the team that pulled together 100 stories highlighting NIHR’s achievements for its 10th anniversary last year, I had a few late nights. Colleagues and I pored over content both lay and scientific, written up for websites, policy briefings, reports, pamphlets, and (of course) journals. We synthesised, evidenced, cross-referenced, edited, tagged and indexed examples from a pool of over 200 suggestions; crowd-sourced from NIHR communication professionals, senior managers, and researchers and healthcare practitioners themselves. Sleep notwithstanding, we ended up with both bite-sized and full-length versions of what we called an ‘impact synthesis’ – a centuplicate compendium of benefits delivered through NIHR’s support of health and care research.


The experience, edifying though it was, demonstrated a challenge inherent to any attempts to extract meaningful narrative from a dynamic, complex and highly networked health research system, namely, whose story do you tell?, and, what are you trying to achieve in the telling?

Our brief for NIHR’s 10th birthday was satisfyingly unscientific, inasmuch as we set about finding the 100 brightest candles to shine a light on the positive effects, or impacts, of research. I’m a big believer in these ‘good news’ stories – they help to generate support for research by describing benefits people can relate to.

But support – or advocacy – for research is just one of the many reasons why a public funder might wish to understand the impact of its investments. How and why a funder goes about assessing impact reveals as much about its values and priorities as the research they ultimately support.


These perhaps subtle, but certainly important, factors will form the focus of a ‘Pop-Up University’ session being chaired by Professor Ruth Boaden at the 2017 NHS Expo, where colleagues and I will be exploring NIHR through the ‘lens’ of impact. As well as drawing on good news stories, we’ll be examining the principles and values underpinning NIHR’s emerging impact strategy, and the wider contexts, challenges and opportunities relevant to NIHR’s mission.

Is it possible to combine pragmatic, evidence-led approaches to assessing impact, with healthy reflections on the values and challenges that lie within? It would seem so, with examples emerging from research funders in Australia and Canada, amongst others. Closer to home, the NIHR’s own Oxford Biomedical Research Centre recently published a protocol to maximise value from its research, while asking (scientifically, of course) ‘what is going on here and what can we learn from it?’.

While it may be effortful, it is encouraging to see funders putting in place strategies that enable, sustain and assess meaningful impacts of the research they fund. Doing so as part of an open and engaging dialogue ought to help widen the public relevance of research, as well as its delivery of benefits to the societies that it ultimately serves.

Looking at NIHR’s research through the lens of impact will form the focus of a ‘pop-up university’ session at the 2017 NHS Health and Care Innovation Expo on Tuesday 12 September from 09:00–09:45am (room PUU5). You can find further details and register via the NHS Expo website.

Adam Kamenetzky is a Research Fellow at the Policy Institute and Researcher-In-Residence at the NIHR Central Commissioning Facility, working on NIHR’s approaches to understanding and assessing research impact.

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