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Exploring the Concept of Research Impact

Exploring the Concept of Research Impact

This is the first in the series Bracing for Impact by Dr. Elizabeth N. Farley-Ripple.

As a researcher, I hope my work will have an impact.  I hope that the knowledge I develop is useful to those who come after me, shaping their thinking and their scholarship.  But I hope beyond that for my work to help shape education policy and practice and ultimately make a difference in what happens in schools.  My hopes are like others’, and this is one of the reasons my research focuses on understanding connections between research and practice.

I’ve considered myself part of a scholarly community that studies the use of research evidence, and that community spans disciplines, policy areas, and geographical boundaries (which I’ve written about elsewhere).  But more recently I’ve observed changes in how we talk about the use of research, specifically a shift to the idea of research impact.  My first encounter with widespread use of this term was in Valencia, Spain, where an international group of scholars convened to discuss the future of the field of evidence use (I wrote about this here and contributed here) and was recently reinforced in a trip to London where the Nuffield Foundation hosted a meeting to Transform the Use of Research Evidence (#transformURE, @TransformURE).  One of my takeaways was curiosity and concern for this reframing of language from use to impact.

Origin of Evidence Use
The study of evidence use stems from knowledge utilization, which Backer (1991) describes as, “knowledge utilization includes research, scholarly, and programmatic intervention activities aimed at increasing the use of knowledge to solve human problems. The field embraces a number of subtopics, each of which has its own body of work and professional tradition (p226).” Importantly, the core components of the field – “evidence” and “use” are broadly construed, incorporating a range of types of evidence, inclusive of research; and constituting varied forms of and purposes for use, such as the categories of instrumental, conceptual, political/strategic, and symbolic commonly featured in evidence use scholarship.  The study of evidence use, is, at its core, a field focused on understanding the formation of policy and practice and the role(s) evidence has in that process. The last 10 years have also seen the re-emergence of evidence use as a field of enquiry, including the re-establishment of venues for scholarship, such as Evidence & Policy, the U.S. Institute for Education Sciences’ investment in two knowledge utilization centers, and philanthropic support for the study of evidence use by the William T. Grant Foundation.

Research Impact Defined
We contrast the field of evidence use with contemporary conceptualizations of “research impact”, which in a review of the work to date, draws heavily on the (UK) Research Excellence Framework (REF), carried out by higher education funding organizations, which defines research impact as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’.  Research impact is concerned with the impact of scholarly work on broader society, reflecting a narrower conceptualization of evidence guiding policy and practice and a focus on the outcome of use as being observable influence or change.  Discussion and debate about research impact have greatly increased internationally. This is reflected in the work of (i) research funders (e.g. ARC ‘Engagement and Impact’ consultation (Australia), REF process (UK)); (ii) research organisations (e.g. the UKRI (research councils) initiative; ); and (iii) professional bodies (e.g. British Academy, AERA, etc..). As OECD (2011) noted some years ago: ‘Public research organisations are increasingly aware that they must demonstrate performance, impact and quality to their parent funding bodies, to their private clients and to the international research community’ (OECD, 2011:1). 

Impact can be understood in multiple ways, which may broadly include academic and societal.  Academic impact includes advancing scientific knowledge, methods, or theory within or across fields of study – which we may think of as occurring within the academy.  But societal impact is much broader and transcends the silos of academia.  Examples of societal impact include contributions to culture, economy, the environment, policy, social change, law, technological development, and more, and as one might expect, the nature of the impact depends on the nature of the research conducted.  

This concern for research impact is reflected in numerous reports and syntheses (Bastow, Dunleavy, & Tinker, 2014; Durea, Hochman, & Parfitt, 2007; Grant, 2006; Grant, et al, 2010; Greenhalgh, et al, 2016; Jones, et al, 2013; Kostoff & And, 1994; Morton 2015a; Morton, 2015b; Oancea, 2013; Penfield, et al, 2014; Walter, Nutley, & Davies, 2003), though it is beyond the scope of this commentary to review this growing body of work. However, I note that in the US, the conversation around impact is much more recent, which creates an opportunity to think carefully about the discourse, measures, purposes of emphasis of “research impact”, an opportunity which in part motivates this post.

Research Impact related to Education
As I’ve observed the emergence of the idea of research impact, I’ve grown curious about how we, in the U.S., think about it in education.  After all, there has been significant attention paid to connecting research to practice in education as a result of accountability policy and related legislation such as the Education Sciences Reform Act.  But more typically, the discourse has involved “research use” or “evidence-based” frames rather than “research impact”. What does research impact mean in our context?  My goal here is not to synthesize the literature on research impact – others, particularly those in the UK and Australian contexts have -, nor to conduct a study of research impact in the U.S.. My goal, rather is to surface current thinking about the term and its implications, specific to the U.S., and specific to education research.

Design of this series on Research Impact
I wanted to learn more about how others – particularly those influential in the education field – understand the terms and what research impact means in the educational context. So I turned to six of those leaders to find out.  Let me be forthright in acknowledging that these individuals in no way represent the breadth of stakeholders in education space.  They include leaders of government agencies, funding organizations, institutions of higher education, innovative programs, research-practice partnerships, and professional associations. They were selected because they are positioned to be influential in how others think about research impact and may provide insight about the larger issues about the role of research in education policy and practice and the directions future efforts might take.  Each granted me the opportunity to ask questions – and where I could, I followed up with additional questions.  To keep the dialogue as open and forthright as possible, I promised to keep their comments anonymous. The questions around which our conversations centered were:
       1) What does research impact mean to you and your organization?
       2) Why is research impact important to you and your organization?
       3) How do you/would you measure or capture research impact?
       4) How do you/would you support research impact?
       5) Do you see research impact as different from research use?

I took notes and wrote reflective memos to myself so that I could remember the tensions, new ideas, and nuances that struck me in our conversation, as well as comparisons to other responses.  I reflected across conversations and in this blog series share what emerged as provocative themes to consider as we contemplate the relationship between research and practice.  I’ll again be forthright and state that this is not a rigorous qualitative study.  It is exploratory and reflective, but, as a researcher, my approach was intentional and systematic.

Parts of the Whole

For each of the next four weeks, I’ll post a reflection on key themes for discussion:

In the final post, I’ll look ahead to the future of this work and opportunities to connect the ideas of research impact and research use and to define challenges that may emerge if a shift between the two persists. Our hope is to engage in thoughtful and productive dialogue in response to these reflections through social media, following the dialogue on Twitter via @rsrch4schools and #researchimpact.  We welcome readings, reflections, suggestions, and directions for future work to examine ideas that compare and contrast research use and research impact.

*Author’s Note:  I’d like to acknowledge the support of the William T. Grant Foundation for creating the opportunities that resulted in this line of work, and Vivian Tseng and Mark Rickinson for their generosity in letting me bounce ideas off of them.  I’d especially like to acknowledge the six thought leaders who volunteered their valuable time to contribute to this project.

About the Author:
Dr. Elizabeth N. Farley-Ripple, is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware.  Her research focuses on policy analysis and evidence-based decision-making in schools.  She can be reached at


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