Plan your pathway to impact
Impact is defined as the demonstrable contribution that research makes to society and the economy, of benefit to individuals, organisations and nations.
Generating impact from research is highly context dependent, takes time, involves serendipity, and, often, comprises a series of small incremental changes carried out collaboratively.
However, ‘impact’ is the term for the outcome not the process itself. This is better described as knowledge mobilisation. Knowledge mobilisation is about sharing knowledge between different communities to catalyse change. It is made up of processes and activities like engagement, dissemination, co-design and commercialisation.
- Gain an understanding of impact through our e-learning course Introduction to impact through the lens of NIHR. This will provide an introduction to what impact is, what it isn’t and why it’s important to NIHR.
- Learn more about ‘knowledge mobilisation’ via our Introduction to knowledge mobilisation webinar for researchers.
- There are a number of different approaches to knowledge mobilisation, some of which may be more effective than others for your research. Read our summary of Cochrane and systematic reviews on the effectiveness of different knowledge mobilisation methods
We've identified the five most common mistakes made by researchers in the dissemination and engagement plans for their applications for NIHR funding. Read about how to counter the five most common mistakes in dissemination and engagement plans.
Engaging with research users
Generating meaningful research impact requires engaging with the people who are likely to use the research. This engagement is usually through conversations from the very beginning of the research project, even before the design stage.
We encourage all applicants for NIHR funding to prospectively (and realistically) consider how to engage with and involve research users at every stage of the research process, considering how users might benefit from the research.
As well as patients, carers and members of the public, research users may include commissioners, voluntary sector professionals, managers, clinicians of various backgrounds and anyone else who is crucial if the intended change is to happen within practice, policymaking, third sector or private sector organisations.
- Researchers define evidence as research, while commissioners have a much broader definition of ‘evidence’. Read our advice on how researchers can influence commissioners and policy makers to get research into practice.
Planning your pathway to impact
Engaging with research users and identifying potential impacts from the outset will help you to plan processes by which your research may directly or indirectly catalyse change. Planning includes considering the kinds of impact you are hoping to achieve; that is, what might change, for whom, to what extent, and when.
Researchers who apply for funding from NIHR research programmes are expected to include an engagement and impact plan in their application. This plan should outline how you will engage with research users to deliver impact from your research.
NIHR-funded researchers are also expected to report the outputs, outcomes and the impacts of their research to the NIHR through Researchfish.
Have a look at our examples of high quality engagement and impact plans from recently funded NIHR research applications:
- Making positive moves - NIHR Research for Patient Benefit
- Shared decision-making for high risk surgery - NIHR Programme Grants for Applied Research
NIHR Open Research is a publishing platform that allows researchers to rapidly publish any research information they wish to share, supporting transparency, reproducibility and impact from publicly funded research.
NIHR Open Research allows NIHR researchers to publish not only study findings but also incremental findings, case reports and even negative findings, thus supporting the entire life cycle of research. With all types of research findings rapidly available on NIHR Open Research, this means that other researchers can build on new ideas straight away and avoid the risk of duplication, so that new treatments and interventions for patients will become available quicker.
Advice on how to plan your pathway to impact
Engage with research users
Know your research users: understand their key interests, perspectives, needs and expectations - know what motivates them. Understand the timescales they are working to. Recognise that different people may have different needs.
Get the right people with the right networks, knowledge and experience on board, preferably with at least two as co-applicants.
Engage with research users at the planning stage and keep them involved throughout the project and beyond.
Resource the input of research users properly within the application, with enough time and money.
Find and cultivate people to be ‘champions’ for your research within the organisations that need to make the change, seeking out individuals with the right level of influence.
Link with established networks to raise the profile of your research.
Work with voluntary and third sector organisations, because they often have powerful connections with policymakers, service users and carers.
Use existing forums, groups, meetings and events to exchange knowledge, raise awareness and get feedback on your research early and as your research progresses.
Understand the cultural, financial, service and policy context of your research.
Identify and cultivate contexts where there is demand for change, with the right people and conditions to act on your research.
Ensure that your research is fit for purpose within those contexts.
Consider a range of tailored outputs for managers, patients and carers, practitioners, industry, researchers, clinicians, and the public, as appropriate.
If you’re producing written materials, use plain English.
Use interactive types of output and approach, as well as the traditional dissemination of reports, lay summaries, and academic papers.
Consider stories, social media and illustrations. Be creative!
- A number of our research programmes expect researchers to publish their findings in the NIHR Journals Library. But once your report has been published it is important to ensure that researchers and other users are able to find and cite your report easily.
- Press releases are an important tool to tell the world about your research. Read our advice on using press releases as a way to disseminate research results.
Consider how best to reach and influence your target audiences through networks, educational events, audit and feedback, embedding research findings into IT systems, theatre etc.
Use more than one method of engagement.
Try to reach more than one audience.
Read our guidance on costing for these types of knowledge mobilisation activities.
Consider what can be shared before the end of the study to maintain engagement and whet appetites for the final results.
Take advantage of serendipity, because opportunities that lead to impact are often unexpected and unplanned.
Toolkits for your plan
NIHR has developed an interactive dashboard that summarises and signposts to a range of tools and other practical resources available to support research impact planning, delivery and assessment. If you have an NIHR Learn account you can access the Impact Toolkit on NIHR Learn; if you don't you can access the Impact Toolkit on NIHR Open Learn.
Some key toolkits available to help you devise an engagement and impact plan include:
- The Canadian Knowledge Mobilisation toolkit – This site has many tools to help researchers plan, carry out and evaluate knowledge mobilisation activities.
- The ESRC impact toolkit – Although for social science research, this site is very good on how to collaborate and influence policymakers. 50 case studies are available.
- The Health Foundation communication toolkit – Excellent resource for understanding communications strategies in general, and the communications strategy template is particularly good.
- The Fast Track toolkit - Includes lots of templates, podcasts, blogs and tools for a variety of impact-related activities.
- Impact Literacy toolkit – Focuses on the first step as identifying the problem in collaboration with research users.
Hear from our researchers
We've spoken to three NIHR-funded researchers about how they successfully generated meaningful research impact.
Packing an emotional punch
Dr Ruth Riley developed a performance art piece to share the stories of doctors interviewed for her NIHR-funded research on doctors’ mental health, as a novel way to raise awareness of mental health issues and create impact from her research.
Read a case study on Dr Riley's research
Dr Willie Hamilton used a number of different methods to share the findings from his NIHR-funded research and worked hard to make the connections to get the cancer risk assessment tools he developed into practice.
Read a case study on Dr Hamilton's research
Stepping away from the desk
Inspired by her network of users and carers, Dr Katie Featherstone undertook a wide range of engagement activities to ensure her research on care for people with dementia in hospital would influence policymakers, practitioners and managers.