Impact and REF

Written by Dr Ben Nichols, Research Policy and Governance Administrator, Research Policy and Operations

I’m sure that anyone working in research has heard their colleagues complain about the Research Excellence Framework (or REF). And if you’ve been reading this blog you’ll have seen a number of references to it. The REF is the most recent incarnation of the periodic assessment of research quality in UK universities that has happened every 6 or 7 years since 1986. The results of this assessment translate directly into how much money institutions get from the Government, so universities put a lot of effort into making good quality submissions. But many have criticised the exercise for introducing unnecessary competition, for its administrative burden, and for creating undue pressure on researchers.

Ahead of the REF that took place in 2014, HEFCE (the body responsible for formulating and running the REF) introduced an aspect of the exercise for assessing the “impact” of research. Whereas previous exercises had assessed research outputs (mostly publications) and research environment (the infrastructure and culture that supports research), they wanted a system for assessing how research makes things happen outside academia. The guidance published by HEFCE ahead of the last REF defined “impact” in brief as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.” Universities were invited to submit case studies in largely narrative form that described how excellent research that they had demonstrably contributed to had generated this kind of impact. These case studies were then awarded scores on the basis of their “reach and significance” by panels of subject experts and the scores, in turn, made up 20% of a unit’s, and therefore an institution’s, overall “quality profile.”

This focus on research impact introduced by REF 2014 has of course generated differing opinions. Some have welcomed it, arguing that researchers are funded by public money and should therefore show how their work directly benefits the public who pay for them. But as with other aspects of REF, “impact” has come under fire. Some argue that it encourages applied over theoretical research, disadvantages those in precarious positions (such as contract research staff or ECRs), and creates cults of personality around certain impactful academic “stars.” Moreover, some have asked why researchers have been asked to demonstrate their impact when the same burden is not always placed on other activities also funded by public money. At the same time, there is often a recognition that the assessment of impact in REF 2014 has generated a large database of impact case studies (6,975 in fact), useful for demonstrating the tangible benefits of university research to those who might not necessarily be convinced of its intrinsic value.

Whatever is the case, it looks like the assessment of impact is here to stay. HEFCE recently held a consultation on the criteria for the next REF, scheduled to take place in 2021. Proposals for the assessment of impact in the future include: creating a unified definition with the UK Research Councils, introducing institutional- as well as unit-level impact case studies, and widening and deepening the sense of what research impact is. The preliminary results of this consultation are due any day now and we’ll know more once they’ve been announced. One thing we know for sure, though, is that the formal assessment of research impact is unlikely to go anywhere soon.

Top Tips to Impact the World Around You

Written by Nudrat Siddiqui, Research Staff Development Officer 

Further to 67.5% of you expressing an interest in undertaking impact training in the Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS), The Centre for Research Staff Development (CRSD) was delighted to run a workshop on impact on 3rd July. The workshop was a great success and featured sessions delivered by various experts on impact, including Dr Kathy Barrett, University Lead for Research Staff Development, CRSD, Dr Richard Matthewman, Faculty of Natural and Mathematical Sciences Research Manager, Stephen Roberts, Research Engagement Manager, Engagement Services, and Dr Jenni Chambers, Head of Public Engagement with Research, Research Councils UK (RCUK). Participants also had the opportunity to engage with staff from the Science Gallery, Policy Institute, Cultural Institute and Entrepreneurship Institute to find out how these departments could support their impact plans and create and receive feedback on Pathways to Impact Statement templates from staff from the Research Development & Pre-Award Team.

In case you missed the workshop, here are some key points that were raised by speakers:

Why do impact?

How can you have impact and when should you do it?

  • Start thinking about and embedding impact into your research practices early, instead of waiting until you have to apply for funding.
  • The PESTLE analysis and Logic Model are useful tools that can help you consider how your research can have impact.
  • RCUK define impact in 2 ways: Academic Impact and Economic & Social impact
  • Academic impact –explores how your research has impacted your field. Ways to have academic impact include publishing papers, presenting at conferences, running workshops, and being invited to deliver talks.
  • Economic impact – Activities that can lead to economic impact include networking activities, such as knowledge transfer networks, IP and patents, and placements. Exchanging people and knowledge is one of the most powerful ways to have impact, e.g. if you spend a few days working in the environment of the end user.
  • Social Impact – can be generated by having an influence on health (e.g. working with healthcare professionals), policy (e.g. getting involved with professional bodies) cultural sectors (e.g. holding exhibitions), within local communities or raising public awareness and understanding (e.g. public engagement and outreach in schools, museums, etc).
  • Consider the timeline of your impact in terms of the Preparation stage, the Project activities stage, and the Continue stage, which may involve further funding and exploring the contacts you’ve made.

What stakeholders should you engage?

  • Consider the level of interest that different stakeholders will have in your research and the influence they will have in supporting your impact activities.
  • Assess whether your research will have a positive or negative impact.
  • Groups of stakeholders you might want to consider engaging could include patients and healthcare professionals, service providers, funding agencies, NGOs and charities, government and policymakers, environmental practitioners, education practitioners and students.
  • Think about how you prioritise stakeholders with limited time and resources.
  • Ways to engage stakeholders could include face-to-face meetings, through visual materials, or exhibitions.

Tips to write a strong RCUK Pathways to Impact Statement

  • If you plan to apply for RCUK funding in the future, you will have to complete a 2-page template for a Pathways to Impact Statement outlining how your research will have impact.
  • RCUK’s main consideration for Pathways to Impact Statements is that your research should have a significant impact on economy and society.
  • Different funding calls have different requirements for Pathways to Impact Statements and there are council specific guides on how to do this.
  • Pathways to Impact Statements are assessed under peer review.
  • Keep Statements simple but thorough and be project specific rather than generalised.
  • Indicate the audiences and sectors you will be engaging and how you will engage them.
  • Consider how your impact will be evaluated.
  • Don’t hesitate to request money or staff time.
  • Include costs related to proposed impact activities.
  • Choose impact activities that are two-way and that will engage stakeholders.

This workshop is also being developed into an e-learning module which will be available internally on KEATS in the next academic year. Keep an eye out for details of when the module will become available in the Research Staff News newsletter.

Impact: A Short Introduction

Written by Nadia Xarcha, Research Information Coordinator, Faculty of Arts & Humanities

Yes, you’ve heard about it! Your PI or line manager has mentioned it at some point and your research colleagues talk about it during their coffee break. Questions like – who came up with impact in the first place? Why do I have to think about it? Why can’t I just concentrate on my research? – have definitely crossed your mind a few times.  I know, it might be overwhelming but I have news for you: You’re already delivering impact!

What is it exactly and when was it introduced?

‘Impact’ was introduced a few years ago for the purposes of the REF[1] and there are several definitions but impact, in simple words, is the benefit of research to society. What has changed (behaviour, practice, etc.) as a result of your research? Examples of impact might be the alteration of public policy, the introduction of a new school curriculum, the improvement of patients’ health and many, many others that cannot be demonstrated in a short post. Just browse through the old impact case studies and you will rediscover the beauty of conducting research.

And why does it matter so much?

In REF terms, impact was developed in order to showcase the reach and significance of research and to allow external audits of how public money is spent. But impact is not and should not be just about the REF. It is the link that makes researchers’ work known to people from outside research who otherwise might not have been engaged, even though it might deeply affect them. It helps researchers reflect on their research questions and outcomes and conduct better research in the long term. It motivates them to communicate their research in simple words to a wider audience.

Should an early career researcher engage with impact?

It’s a personal decision but I would encourage you to do so as it is helpful for the development of your research career. As an early career researcher, you definitely have a lot in mind and impact might seem to be the cherry on the cake, but I think this is not the way to see it! Impact can actually be satisfying. What I would suggest is that you focus on doing exceptional research and enjoy that journey. The ‘impact element’ of your research will then emerge naturally. And we have plenty of resources (people, training, seed funds, etc.) here at King’s to support you with it at every stage of your research (the earlier the better). Just talk to us. Remember, you’re not alone in this

[1] REF: Research Excellence Framework is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions.

Public Engagement – But Why?

Written by Dr Nigel Eady 

“So what is it you actually do?” It’s a question that many researchers get asked by friends and family, at parties, over a meal, or almost anywhere. How do you respond? Which version do you give them – the big picture, sounds interesting but is far from the day to day reality, or the fine detail, might send them to sleep version? Is this public engagement? Well, it certainly could be, but most people would define public engagement much more broadly.

I would describe it as ‘any process through which people interact with research’. Personally, I think, the more interesting types of public engagement involve as much ‘listening’ by researchers as they do ‘telling’. Giving people information is important, but having a dialogue, a two-way conversation, can be even more useful, for both parties. You might even think of engagement as being a broad spectrum of approaches.

In recent years, public engagement has moved from being under the radar, to being required explicitly by funders, see the 2010 Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research and RCUK webpages. Whilst some would definitely debate whether it is really a part of normal research practice, it is only going to become more important. The requirement for impact case studies as part of the Research Excellence Framework is another important factor.

One important reason to do public engagement is that much research is conducted with public money, and people therefore have a right to understand how that money is being spent and what it’s achieving. But if that’s not sufficient for you to consider engaging people, here are my 5 top reasons for engaging publics.

1. Enhance your communication skills

For five years I ran various projects to help researchers engage people. It showed me, time and again, that the discipline of having to explain your research to someone else is invaluable for teaching you to communicate more clearly, simply and engagingly.

2. Ask better research questions

As well as communicating better, it’s remarkable the number of times that the questions people ask about your research lead to fresh insights, even new avenues of research.

3. Attract funding

There are many small funding schemes for public engagement. In fact we have one ourselves! By successfully winning funding for activities, not only will you learn how to write a persuasive funding bid, you will also demonstrate to potential, future funders your commitment to your research.

4. Increase your enjoyment

Any form of engagement can be a welcome relief from the rigours of defending your research to your peers! It can also be a helpful reminder as to why you do what you do.

5 .Strengthen democracy

Engaging people with research has a key role to play in opening up decision-making. You can involve people who feel disconnected from society and build trust in public institutions. It’s also an easy way for universities to respond to social need, in particular, at the local level.

Don’t just take my word for it! There are many more reasons to do public engagement. Who knows, you might just feel a little bit more comfortable when you’re asked, “So what is it you do?”

What is the Meaning of Work/Life Balance

Written by Dr Kathy Barrett

I was heartened to see from your contributions to the recent Careers in Research Online Survey in response to the statement “I am satisfied with my work-life balance” that more than half of those of you who responded (66%) agreed or agreed strongly.  I hope that the articles in this blog series on work-life balance helped the remaining 34% of you move in the satisfied direction.

At an early stage in my professional training as a Careers Consultant I was introduced to the theories of Donal Super1.  Super’s theory, summarised by his rainbow (Figure 1), struck several chords with me.  One of these was about work-life balance.  We tend to think about work-life balance as simply between work and life, rather than a complex mix of roles that we take on in our lives.  Super reminds me that work is a part of living and we are free to define for ourselves how big a part it is.

Rainbow 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

Super’s theory says that we take on several different roles during our lifetime.  These are child, student, leisurite, citizen, parent, spouse, homemaker and of course worker.  The amount of time we spend on each of these roles will be defined by our life stage and our priorities.  For example we will be a child for most of our lives, firstly as a dependent child and later potentially as a caring child of an elderly parent.  Most of us will also take on the role of worker, but only intensely from the end of our education to retirement, after which we generally stop working.  The amount of time we spend on each of these roles will also vary, for example it is unusual to be parents before the age of 20 and our children need us less and less as they get older.

The rainbow also reminds me is that there is so much more to life than being a worker.  When considering how to balance our lives towards fulfilment rather than frustration we should take into account all of these roles, their relative importance to us as individuals and the amount of pleasure they each bring.  Of course we also need to consider reality, such as the need to earn enough to keep ourselves and our dependents alive, but would this really mean we need to spend all our waking hours working?

I have seen people gain great insight into how they can make improvements by increasing or decreasing the time spent on one or two of these roles.  Try creating a pie chart of the proportion of your time you actually spend on each of them and a second one of the time proportions you would like to spend, identifying the reasons why you make these distributions.  You may find that it already helps you to improve your perspective on the importance you place on each role and lead to setting a more fulfilling balance.

1. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/089484537500200204

Managing your Workload

By Dr Sarah Robins-Hobden

It’s the nature of the research environment (especially at a research-intensive HEI or institute) that there is much pressure to perform, to publish, to win funding, to build your reputation, to further your career, to collaborate, to contribute, etc. There is potentially more work to do, than hours available in which to do it. Just trying to attempt to keep up could be causing a sense of overwhelm and fatigue. And you might be putting your health and wellbeing second in line behind all that work.

If you are a researcher, you probably don’t need time-management skills – I bet you already have those skills and use them to survive and thrive in the research environment. There may be scope for improvement and refinement, but you might make a bigger impact on your wellbeing and productivity by focusing your efforts on managing your workload, rather than letting it manage you. Here’s why.

Plan for a whole life, not just a work-life

Six reasons why managing your workload is important and will improve your wellbeing:

  1. Reduce stress – function better
  2. Gain clarity on your goals and motivations – increase motivation, enjoy what you do
  3. Decrease time spent on tasks that are less important – reduce frustration and boredom
  4. Release time to spend on other areas of your life outside work – e.g. relationships, family, social, emotional, health
  5. Make progress on the things that really matter to you, rather than just the things that matter to others

Here’s three tips towards taking control of your workload. Do join us for the workshop on the 26th May to discover more, and develop your own personal action plan for taking control of your workload.

Triage new opportunities ruthlessly

Every time you say ‘yes’ to doing something, you are saying ‘no’ to lots of other things. The hours in a day, week, year, and decade are finite. We often say yes to work that we’d really rather not, e.g. If we’re feeling under pressure to give an immediate answer, or if we fear saying no (even though we’re already overloaded) might mean we miss out on an opportunity. If you allocate time to doing things that you don’t enjoy, aren’t rewarding, or don’t move you towards your goals, your workload is not your slave, it is your master. Use the remaining five tips to help you triage your work.

Ideas to experiment with:

  1. Ask yourself what you will not be doing if you accept the task, and whether it is more important to you than the task you are about to accept.
  2. Ask yourself: if this were tomorrow, would I still say yes? We are rubbish at anticipating how we’ll feel in the future, but better at working out how we feel right now. By bringing a future task into our imminent future, we’re better able to decide if we’re doing it because we want to (or it serves our need) or because we feel we ‘ought’ to.

Know what you want and why you want it

Not everyone has a five-year plan, and some of us (e.g. me) don’t have much more than a three-month plan at any given time (I struggle with strategic thinking). No matter the extent of your future vision, working out what you want and why you want it will clarify your goals and motivations. Use this knowledge to guide your workload decisions, and you’ll feel more focused, energised, and purposeful in your work.

Ideas to experiment with:

  1. What are your three most important goals, right now? What would be the next step to move your progress towards them?
  2. Rate your commitment to each of your goals. If it’s less than 8 out of 10, you are unlikely to prioritise working towards that goal. Perhaps you could review your goals (e.g. The desired outcome, timespan, measures, plans, milestones) until you feel more committed.

Pick the sweetest fruit

Look for the added value in the work you take on, and be creative in looking for alternative ways to get that value. For example, if you are tempted to accept a place sitting on a committee or working group, define why you want this opportunity. Pin down which of your goals this would contribute to. Then look around for other opportunities to achieve the same thing, that might be less time-consuming, or more enjoyable to engage with. For example, if your motivation for sitting on the committee is to increase your visibility in your department (rather than because you like committee meetings), then you might achieve the same thing by organising a symposium, exploring the possibility for collaborating with your colleagues, or choosing to engage with more teaching – whatever you feel is more rewarding to you.

Ideas to experiment with:

  1. Analyse what you want to achieve from engaging with a piece of work. Be creative, and list as many possible ways you can think of that would achieve the same result for you.
  2. Then rate all the options for your preference, and actively seek out those opportunities.

Not every tool will work for you – experiment with as many as you like, test them out and discover what’s going to be most useful for you. Ultimately, wrestling your workload under your control, and cultivating self-awareness to better define your direction and motivations will serve you well in freeing up time and headspace to invest in the other areas of your life that contribute to your wellbeing.