Researchers are increasingly required to describe the impact of their work, e.g. in grant proposals, project reports, press releases and research assessment exercises. Specialised impact assessment studies can be difficult to replicate and may require resources and skills not available to individual researchers. Researchers are often hard-pressed to identify and describe research impacts and ad hoc accounts do not facilitate comparison across time or projects.
The Research Impact Framework was developed by identifying potential areas of health research impact from the research impact assessment literature and based on research assessment criteria, for example, as set out by the UK Research Assessment Exercise panels. A prototype of the framework was used to guide an analysis of the impact of selected research projects at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Additional areas of impact were identified in the process and researchers also provided feedback on which descriptive categories they thought were useful and valid vis-à-vis the nature and impact of their work.
We identified four broad areas of impact:
I. Research-related impacts;
II. Policy impacts;
III. Service impacts: health and intersectoral and
IV. Societal impacts.
Within each of these areas, further descriptive categories were identified. For example, the nature of research impact on policy can be described using the following categorisation, put forward by Weiss:
Instrumental use where research findings drive policy-making;
Mobilisation of support where research provides support for policy proposals;
Conceptual use where research influences the concepts and language of policy deliberations and
Redefining/wider influence where research leads to rethinking and changing established practices and beliefs.
Researchers, while initially sceptical, found that the Research Impact Framework provided prompts and descriptive categories that helped them systematically identify a range of specific and verifiable impacts related to their work (compared to ad hoc approaches they had previously used). The framework could also help researchers think through implementation strategies and identify unintended or harmful effects. The standardised structure of the framework facilitates comparison of research impacts across projects and time, which is useful from analytical, management and assessment perspectives.