By Adam Kamenetzky, Research Fellow, Policy Institute at King’s and Researcher-in-residence, NIHR Central Commissioning Facility [on behalf of the AMRC masterclass impact gorilla tamer]

Published: 23 March 2017

Disturbed by the ‘gorilla’ of impact? Feed it with friends (thoughtfully)

It perhaps wasn’t my intention to unleash a new metaphor – not least one quite this aggressive – when as one of a quartet of researchers I agreed to present a panel discussion on research impact at a recent Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) masterclass. But as a former charity manager with experience of how effortful it can be to feed a hunger for research impact stories alongside other day-to-day operational demands, a gorilla seemed sufficiently large and worthy of respect to roll with as a metaphor for this session.

Our session focussed on how, as academics whose practices are focussed by (and focus on) the delivery and evidencing of ‘impact’ – and yes, we are agnostic as to its definition – we might work better together as a network.

Dr Saba Hinrichs-Krapels (@sabziehin) began with a recourse to first principles, working as a health services researcher with an interest in impact. She reminded us that while ‘non-academic benefits to society’ is a good starter for ten, any consideration of impact should also recognise the diversity of real-world benefits sustained by practitioners working within academic institutions. Having a ‘bad impact day’? Try drawing solace from the REF2014 impact case study database, where among the nearly 7,000 evidence-crammed narratives, you can trade your gorilla for stories about elephants and bees. With impact here to stay, it is important that funders build their capabilities and literacy in its assessment. Training courses such as that run by the International School on Research Impact Assessment, whose 2017 edition will be held in Denmark from 8-12 October, provide a practitioner-focussed cramming course in tools and techniques.

Dr Simon Kerridge (@SimonRKerridge) spoke to the reality of impact as a core academic activity, one with inherent and, now, financial value attached to it. With researchers increasingly, if not excessively, aware of the incentives, he outlined the need for systems and standards to help support their delivery and evidencing of research impact. He highlighted two upcoming events of potential interest to funders: the first UK conference of the Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Information Administration (CASRAI-UK) ReConnect UK 2017 (22-23 June, London); and the Association of Research Managers and Administration (ARMA) annual conference (5-7 June, Liverpool), who host a special interest group on impact.

Building impact literacy and developing skills all help to lessen the burden on – not least the fear from and, occasionally, tears of – researchers themselves. Pointing out the discomfort of waking up next to a gorilla of any sort, not least an impact-shaped one, ARMA award-winning Julie Bayley (@JulieEBayley) described ways to mitigate a number of challenges at the nexus of academics, their institutions, and the wider communities of research users. Drawing on her work with knowledge broker guru David Phipps (@mobilemobilizer), she highlighted factors to support the ‘doing’ of impact on the ground – the processes, people and endpoints that create links between impact ambitions and realities. Seeking patient benefit? Then engage with the societies to whom your research is in service, before trying to define a model to represent its impact. Connect researchers, citizens, funders and research managers; taming the impact gorilla is a team effort.

Lastly, I (@adamkamenetzky) presented from my view as ‘an outsider, on the inside’, as researcher-in-residence with one of the five managing centres of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). This relatively new role falls into a ‘middle ground’ of co-designed impact work, falling partway between day-to-day operational analysis (providing information on NIHR’s research activity and outputs), and externally-commissioned work (such as recent impact syntheses, methodology reports, econometric and programme-specific impact evaluations). So far, my job has ranged from helping NIHR to map out the spectrum of activities falling within an ‘impact-like’ space (understanding whose shoulders has the gorilla been jumping on) to supporting bespoke training run by colleagues, to helping NIHR staff design and conduct meaningful impact assessments. Very aware that this is a journey not to be walked alone, my focus is to seek out connections between strands of work that can connect impact thinkers, doers and users across the health research system. A growing ‘community of practice’, aka. friends and colleagues willing to undertake thoughtful and meaningful activities and evaluations for impact.

AMRC has already begun to build this emerging community of practice among its member charities and wider health research partners. A series of Impact Coffee Clubs co-hosted with the NIHR, and an associated online Impact Club Hub, provide a space to voice common challenges, share emerging practices, and occasionally just vent. And this all in a safe and gorilla-proofed setting, with coffee and cake. For those interested in the developing field of the 'science of science', the @PRISMscience Twitter feed has further resources and links to activities examining research at a 'meta' level. Building on this, colleagues and I were delighted to contribute our four different, but hopefully complementary, perspectives on the weighty and, at times, wild beast in the room. We look forward to continuing a dialogue as funders, researchers and, increasingly, citizens all seek to develop their understanding of the societal impacts of research.