By Ian Le Guillou, freelance science writer specialising in charity comms and was previously Research Communications Manager at Prostate Cancer UK

Published: 9 October 2019

Getting to grips with the impact of the research we fund is important –there’s no doubt about that. But it’s easier said than done.

Part of the difficulty is the breadth of expertise needed to master impact from start to finish. So for the AMRC’s Impact Masterclass in September, they broke it down with speakers across three sections: facilitating impact, evidencing it and communicating it.

Facilitating impact

The day began with Adam Kamenetzky, an NIHR Senior Research Fellow, revealing how little research that funders have done to understand their impact. Even definitions of impact lack rigour and suffer a ‘positivity bias’ that reduces understanding of the effectiveness of funding schemes. However, he shared a sneak peek of some of the work that he’s doing to improve the situation.

Meanwhile, Lorcan Kelly from Autistica shared the statistic from a review in the Lancet that 85 per cent of medical research is wasted. So Autistica is now using systematic reviews to check there is a need for the research before funding it. This approach, along with greater involvement of autistic people in priority setting and making research information more accessible, makes their research more likely to have impact.

Nicola Hart from Alzheimer’s Society shared her experience of trying to implement research that wasn’t designed to be scaled up, asking the question: how evidence-based is an intervention if you have to adapt it to reality? The charity now considers implementation at the application stage for grants, rather than waiting until researchers complete their study.

Evidencing impact

Moving on from creating impact, we then discussed how to evidence that impact with a panel of members from Ataxia UK, Prostate Cancer UK and the Wellcome Trust.

Inspired by NASA, Prostate Cancer UK has developed a framework for translational stages that research needs to progress through. By mapping against this, they can see how a particular project has advanced that area further along the translational pathway.

The Wellcome Trust spoke about how they map the outcomes from research against their organisational objectives to ensure that they are measuring what they initially set out to achieve. They also use their grants team to flag any examples of impact that may not have been picked up through their usual metrics.

With smaller grants funded by Ataxia UK, they look at proxies for impact, such as grants leading to further funding. Measures like this are simpler to gather from a small portfolio, where there may not be any clinical trials to show a direct impact.

Communicating impact

Once we’d mastered facilitating and evidencing our impact, the afternoon session focussed on communicating that impact.

Both Alina O’Keeffe from Sands and Molly Hunt from Duchenne UK spoke about creating impact reports and the need to combine stats with stories. In some cases, it can be difficult to get evidence for impact or find suitable case studies. But when both of these are combined, they can create uplifting, memorable narratives that grabbed supporters’ attention.

Emily Burns from Diabetes UK shared how she overcame many of the downsides of producing a report, such as its inflexible and impersonal nature. In particular, converting aspects of the report into different digital formats, including video, social media and webpages, provided more flexibility for tailoring to the audience.

I then filled the graveyard slot to talk about work that I’d done with Prostate Cancer UK. Rather than creating a report, I took the approach of creating a few in-depth research impact case studies that could be used flexibly across fundraising and supporter communications. One point that I emphasised was the importance of putting your impact into context by showing what the situation was like for patients before your research.

By the end of the day, it was clear that nobody had all of the answers to mastering impact. But through sharing our successes and failures, together we’re getting closer. With a greater understanding of our impact, we can fund more, and better, research and ultimately change lives. That’s impact from start to finish.