By Natalie Wall, Impact Officer, Middlesex University

MDX Impact Blog


Research impact is perhaps best known in the context of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), appearing in REF 2014 for the very first time as part of research quality assessment.

However, impact is a process, not an end-point. Ensuring that the generation of impact is part of the process of your research will not only help with REF, it will help meet other objectives for your work:

  1. As part of your intellectual and social responsibility to funders and supporting universities
  2. To help you secure funding by expressing a projected target in terms of real-world consequences for the research
  3. For the collecting of impact evidence during a project’s lifetime, as well as afterwards, as part of project monitoring.
  4. To prepare for a potential REF impact case study submission.

What Is Impact?

Broadly, impact means a shift or change that is demonstrable; often this entails prompting partners and/or beneficiaries to take action, but impact can also take the form of non-action where action was previously planned. Impact as it relates to research, then, means the ways in which research facilitates a change or contributes towards a shift in practice, attitude, technique, etc.

Impact was defined in the REF2014 specifically 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’.

Two key aspects of impact were critical to determining how successful impact had been achieved: the ‘reach’ of the research impact and the ‘significance’ of the change induced as a result of it.

It’s important to understand that good impact, in the REF2014, tended to be associated with clear evidence of reach and significance. For example, research that had high local significance generally scored rather less well than research that had global significance. That does not mean, of course, that research with local reach and high significance for beneficiaries won’t make an excellent case study. You can see examples of case studies from REF2014 here.

What about Dissemination and Public Engagement?

Impact requires that researchers think about the overarching project in terms of non-academic objectives and methods. Dissemination, collaboration, public engagement, and knowledge transfer are all important pieces that make up impact, but are not, in and of themselves, impact.

  • Dissemination is the action of making information available
  • Collaboration is the action of working with one or many to produce something
  • Public engagement is a process of bringing people with some commonality together to address a shared problem or bring about social change
  • Knowledge transfer refers to any mechanism by which knowledge is made available by one organisation (or part thereof) to another.

Impact requires a change in behaviour. Merely making research available, by dissemination for example, is not sufficient.

What Isn’t Impact?

In the last REF, HEFCE as quite explicit about what impact should not be taken to mean:

“For the purposes of the impact element of the REF:

  • Impacts on research or the advancement of academic knowledge within the higher education sector (whether in the UK or internationally) are excluded. […]
  • Impacts on students, teaching or other activities within the submitting HEI are excluded.
  • Other impacts within the higher education sector, including on teaching or students, are included where they extend significantly beyond the submitting HEI”

(“Assessment Framework and Guidance on Submissions” 26).

Impact Is Critical

In this way, the REF reflects the needs and construction of research in the UK today. Horizon 2020 and the UK Research Councils are increasingly funding projects that articulate the research’s proposed impact better than the competitors. Indeed, many funders now require a statement of your intended pathways to achieving impact from the research you want to do. Similarly, the ability to demonstrate impact is becoming more important (as part of evidence of a researcher’s track record of generating impact from previous projects), as is the need for tracking that impact in order to evidence it later.

At Middlesex University, there are a number of resources to help build impact strategies and develop impact profiles. These resources are found in Schools, Departments, University Services, and online. Check the Staff Development Calendar for upcoming workshops. These resources are being added to all the time and all anyone need do is ask!

Impact as Opportunity

Celebrating and evidencing the impact of your research has benefits for the University too. Middlesex wants to be a creative, useful addition to London’s social and economic life as well as a centre of academic endeavour, and evidence of the local, regional, national or international significance of your research for the lives of others helps project a sense of Middlesex as an engaged university – offering practical solutions, ideas and technologies that enhance life in the UK and around the world.