Preparing impact case studies for the REF takes a lot of time and effort. What can we learn from our REF 2021 experiences to make our preparations go as smoothly as possible for REF 2027? Some top tips follow.
It’s never too early to start thinking about our impact case studies
If the research is funded, the chances are that a ‘pathway to impact statement’ or similar was written as part of the funding application. But even when your research is unfunded and no-one is asking what impact it might lead to, it’s still worth planning to achieve some impact.
It is unlikely that individuals will know at a very early stage whether they will be asked to write an impact case study for the next REF. But the earlier a start is made, the richer the impact is likely to be. And even if the impact generated is not selected for a case study, there are other probable benefits including:
• all the information collected is likely to put the researcher in a good place to write further research funding applications
• the researcher will probably have made several useful connections outside academia, some of which may lead to further funding
Embed impact into the research culture of the research team/department/institute
Commit to making impact part of research discussions, including planning activities on an on-going basis to help achieve it.
If the researcher has responsibility for a larger group or is a research leader, they may be able to develop various interventions such as:
• seminars where excellent examples of research impact are showcased and discussed
• recognition of new impact through awards and prizes
For more ideas about establishing a research impact culture, please see my earlier post.
Don’t lose learning from REF 2021
University life is extremely busy with researchers being involved in a range of activities. This can make it tempting to take the foot off the research peddle for a while after all the information for a REF has been submitted.
Researchers may leave as a result of e.g. retirement or a job offer elsewhere.
All of this can mean that learning about crafting an impact case study can be lost or forgotten. If this happens, when the next REF comes along, it all has to be learnt again.
Once the impact case studies have been completed, there is a huge amount of learning in the heads of the authors. Perhaps it could be shared with other researchers at that point? This might help to promote an impact culture.
Make sure researchers’ managers understand what research impact is and the work involved to achieve a great case study
Sometimes those who manage researchers have no research background themselves. This can mean that the concept of research impact has passed them by, along with its importance for the REF. They may also be unaware of the amount of work involved to achieve a great case study.
In such situations, it may be worth research leaders and managers considering organising a briefing event for managers who are not research-active.
Provide time within a researcher’s workload for them to develop their case study
Developing an impact case study takes a considerable amount of time. A great impact case study is likely to be developed over several years. Not all researchers will write a case study for a REF but those who are tasked with doing so do need to be given sufficient time to do the best possible job.
In small returns to Units of Assessment, writing a case study may feel like a lonely job. Authors can benefit from peer support. Even if people are from different UoAs, coming together periodically to share experiences and discuss difficulties can help. Peer reviewing drafts can also be very valuable.
Developing an impact plan for a case study can be extremely helpful, especially where one does not already exist for the research project. But a plan for the case study may be slightly different because it may focus on what impact might be achievable within the timescale of the REF.
It may be necessary to prioritise activities aimed at achieving impact based on factors such as staff time needed and the availability of other resource, as well as what is likely to be feasible within the REF timescale.
Aim to help researchers to be confident about developing an impact case study
I would like to see researchers as confident about writing an impact case study as they are about any other aspect of research (such as writing a grant application, developing a research output or supervising a doctoral student).
Practice is needed to develop this confidence. Exercises such as critiquing impact case studies from previous REFs may help. These should include excellent as well as not-so-strong examples. This can lead to researchers growing in confidence and more able to apply the learning to their own emerging case study.
During a 35 year career in higher education, Jenny Ames led a productive research group, worked with people from a wide range of subject areas and collaborated with organisations from various sectors. She held the title of Professor at 6 universities, graduated ~25 PhD students and mentored ~25 contract researchers. Jenny was also a senior manager for 8 years and, as Associate Dean and Assistant Pro Vice Chancellor, led on Research Impact at University level. In 2017 was she was made Founding Research Impact Lead for University Alliance.
Since 2017, Jenny has been Director of Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd. Working with universities in the area of Research Impact is an important part of her business. Jenny also has a coaching practice. She is a Member of the Association for Coaching and holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring Practice from Oxford Brookes University.