Impact is the name of the game: for researchers who want to show funders that their work will make a difference; for charities who want to show that their funding is furthering their charitable cause.
But with so many domains in which research can have impact (society, economy, healthcare, technology...) and so many different forms that impact can take (engaging with the public, developing a new treatment, creating evidence for a policy change...) which ones are the most important?
A new study from researchers at the Policy Institute at Kings, Cardiff University and RAND Europe has used a best-worst scale system to see which impacts are rated highly by the public and researchers.
What did they do?
The research team came up with a list of impacts in 8 areas (knowledge, REF impact, training, jobs, private funding, life expectancy, cost of care and dissemination). In a survey, they asked respondents to choose their 'top 2' (most important) and 'bottom 2' (least important) impacts from lists of possible impacts.
This allowed the research team to come up with a ranking for researchers and a separate ranking for the public.
They linked these 2 ranks together in a data model (using the score both groups had given an impact on improving life expectancy for people with a common chronic disease) to allow them to compare the rankings of the public and researchers. You can find out more about the methodology on this blog.
What did they find?
Top impacts for public (researcher rank in brackets)
The top 6 impacts for researchers and the public were broadly similar, although the public ranked 'research that contributes to more choice of care at the same quality and cost' as 5th, while researchers ranked it 12th.
Training and investment are important
Training was seen as important, although researchers and the public valued different trainees. Training for young researchers who become doctors and nurses or who become researchers in industry was ranked 8th & 9th respectively by the public, but 15th and 13th with researchers. Training for researchers to become university professors was ranked 7th by researchers but 13th by the public.
The public also valued research that led to private investment, with 'research contributes to a follow-up study in the UK being funded by a company' at 16th place (compared to 26th for researchers).
Dissemination lower down the ranks
Perhaps surprisingly, the public viewed public engagement as less valuable. While 'consulting with the public to help set research priorities' was in 22nd place, researchers talking to schools, giving public lectures and giving interviews to the media languished at the bottom of the list of prefered impacts of research.
What does this mean for charities that fund medical research?
This paper demonstrates that the public recognise the value of impact in a wide variety of areas. The public preferred impacts on the cost of care, creating excellent knowledge and training researchers. These areas map well onto the research strategies of charities, who aim to fund research that creates new information, develops new treatments and supports a cadre of researchers who can continue the work.
The research also shows that areas valued by the public can be DIFFERENT to those valued by researchers. We need to be aware of this when we choose which impacts we want to encourage and promote.
As with all research, these findings are somewhat limited, and 'more research is necessary' but we can be encouraged that funders like MRC are developing the knowledgebase.