09 Feb 2022

Response from the British Academy of Management to UKRI’s Consultation on Impact in Research Applications – February 2022

UK Research and Innovation ran a consultation between 10th January and 4th February 2022 as part of a review of their systems to better understand the effectiveness of their current approaches in supporting impact across UKRI and through the investments they fund. https://engagementhub.ukri.org/reforming-our-business/impact2021/

BAM responded as a ‘stakeholder’ and as a ‘charity’ to this anonymous questionnaire, following a call to our UK-based members for comments on the main question contained in the version of the survey for stakeholders ‘Do you have any further comments on how impact is incorporated and assessed in research applications to share with UKRI or any Research Council/s in particular?’.

Comments received were synthesised into the response below, which was submitted following approval by Professor Katy Mason, Chair of BAM.

We are very grateful indeed to those who took the time to share their thoughts with us so that BAM can fulfil its role as a voice for our community.  

Our Response

Do you have any further comments on how impact is incorporated and assessed in research applications to share with UKRI or any Research Council/s in particular?

The British Academy of Management - the learned society for Business & Management scholars - wishes to share some reflections and information with UKRI as a whole because projects within our discipline are funded by many different research councils, including ESRC, AHRC, EPSRC and even NERC.

We comment below from our community's experience of this process, but we also make positive and constructive suggestions for ways in which UKRI and its constituent research Councils could consider the incorporation and assessment of impact within research applications in future.

Our main point concerns the way impact is defined and understood within the process, and the other concerns the timeline for impact

Impact in Business & Management is not always readily or directly measurable/quantifiable in the sort of ways that reviewers and assessors tend to seek. This can result in a problematic lack of research into more complex issues, and a skewed focus onto one type of project. 

Engaged research – i.e. research with co-design and co-created with stakeholders, as well as mutual learning - is a particular strength of Business & Management. But it is very difficult to define impact in the closely bounded ways expected by reviewers and assessors during the proposal phase because of the built-in potential for change. One opportunity might be to assess the quality of the impact activities which can be immediate and clear, while the impact itself is often much longer term, exists often beyond the life of the project and is typically, resource intensive to evidence. Evidence generating is also often significant impacted by turnover of staff in organisations. Those involved in engaged research often get promoted and move on out of their organisations to ‘bigger’ things so tracing impact by making use of existing relationship can be challenging. 

Research in general is conducted when there is no or little knowledge, so the outcomes may be unexpected or surprising. It is therefore difficult to foresee what ‘demonstrable contribution’ a study may make, plan for it in the funding application, and make a strong case for it. An alternative would be to shift the focus towards ‘impact development activities’, because these are within the control of the researchers.  This would enable applicants to outline specific activities through which they seek to generate impact, identify the relevant stakeholder group(s), specify the expected impact and how it will be measured / assessed. This would enable researchers to tell a ‘better story’ and give reviewers a better chance of assessing if these plans are realistic, coherent, and well thought through.

The UKRI definition of impact is different from the one used by the REF process, which causes some confusion amongst researchers. Identifying examples of good impact practice will be helpful to the community, and alignment of definitions could be desirable.

The balance of the time horizon is also a problem for applicants. In our field many impacts necessarily appear in the longer term, i.e. beyond the lifetime of the grant, so are difficult to build in to the current grant application process. This results in a focus on short term impacts for the purposes of the application, rather than on the real, longer-term impact.

For these reasons, guidance to applicants, reviewers and assessors about the definition of impact / impact development activities and about where these should be included in the proposal should be made very clear. A dedicated section may be helpful in this regard.

Submitted: 4th February 2022