Three takeaways from the Third International Strategy of Impact Conference

“With today’s mounting pressures on research funding… research practitioners in HE, government, and NGOs face a mounting challenge”

Research has a long tail. The vaccine for Polio — the devastating viral epidemic linked to thousands of cases of paralysation and death in the first half of the 20th century — was launched in 1955.

The impact is still being felt today (and forevermore): according to the World Health Organisation, more than 18 million people walk today who would have been paralysed without the vaccine. Yet, the initial exploratory research project that looked at the poliovirus started and finished decades ago.

It’s precisely this recognition of the long-tail effects of research that is driving an emerging conversation around the assessment of research activity both in the UK and globally.

With today’s mounting pressures on research funding, especially following the global credit crunch, research practitioners in higher education, government, and NGOs face a mounting challenge: how can they continue to expand the borders of intellectual discovery, while investing in research activities that lead to impact and achieve the desired mission?

It’s a familiar situation: A three-year research project may not produce real impact for several years after the project is finished. The UK has led the way in looking beyond the short-term payoff of research outcomes of research – the publications and references — to the long-tail impact of the work through the emerging field now known as impact assessment.

This work involves firstly tracking research by collecting common outcome data (preferably in a structured, consistent way to enable data sharing and collaboration). This data can be used by stakeholders to understand and demonstrate the benefits of funded research, and also identify the pathways to that impact.

With this in mind, late in 2019, over 220 international research professionals gathered at the British Library in London at Researchfish’s third annual Strategy of Impact International Conference for a day of learning, listening, and networking about the importance of tracking research and measuring its impact and implications.

With a focus on building a community of like-minded research organisations and professionals, delegates from funders (both large and small), charities, research organisations, universities, researchers, and consultants found the day worthwhile and insightful.

“It’s a familiar situation: A three-year research project may not produce real impact for several years after the project is finished”

The day opened with thought-provoking keynotes from Sir Alan Wilson, the Alan Turing Institute (discussing the social and economic impacts from research in mathematical science); Dr Jim Smith, Wellcome, (discussing the view from both sides of the fence when measuring research impact); Natacha Wilson, Cambridge Insights (presenting her journey from data to insights – creating a greater impact); and Professor Virginia Murray from Public Health England (who engaged the audience about the science-policy interface and the fact that research needs to be useful, usable, and used).

The afternoon was split into three parallel sessions:

  1. Research-on-research: One of the key questions explored during the conference was defining “Research on Research” itself: what does it actually mean in practice? What are stakeholders aiming to achieve, and how are they approaching it?
    A panel shared some of their experiences and discussed some of the different approaches and considerations. Round table discussions then focussed on what research-on-research meant to participants’ organisations, and what the important research questions might be. Specific projects were then presented and discussed.
  1. Analysing and visualising data: Beyond just extracting mere data on the efficacy of research, equally as important is the interpretation of that data and translation. Among the key topics discussed at the conference were approaches to tracking research data and analytics, but also improving engagement by the end-users of research-on-research data.
    This discussion included insights into research tracking data; improving engagement and impact; advanced analytics, capturing user perspectives; and understanding and informing research funding through data.
  1. The interconnectedness of all things: Participants brainstormed ways to leverage existing data to make it easier to understand the outputs, outcomes and impacts of research, including recent and future developments in Researchfish. This was followed by a session on Insights on Translational Research and Intellectual Property.

While a somewhat cerebral topic, this emerging field is having important ramifications across global academic research — where faculty and leaders make high stakes decisions every day as they decide where to devote limited research investments.

Moving forward, research assessment combined with the growing discipline of research-on-research, bringing the research community closer together, promises to help understand how research practices can not only become more sustainable financially, but achieve long-term societal impact.

About the author: Sean Newell is CEO of Researchfish a leader in tracking research and evidencing impact by using intelligent technology and expert analysis.