Stairway to impact

This article introduces my ‘staircase’ model of impact, which was devised to show academics in the UK how they can achieve research ‘impact’. In particular, in the UK, we worry about this in relation to ‘the REF’. The REF is the Research Excellence Framework, the system run by the government to assess the quality and impact of research in UK universities. The article first appeared in Funding Insight, an online magazine for research professionals, on 21 March 2016. It is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. But I also distilled the whole thing into a handy infographic, which appears below, on the train on 17 May 2016.

As REF 2014 crumbles gently into our memories, and REF 2020/21 rumbles menacingly forth, the notion of ‘impact’ is rarely far away. And researchers continue to set new records in misunderstanding what impact is.

We’ve all been in lots of meetings about what impact means. But the information never seems to stick. Or we’re in a vast game of Chinese Whispers where once reasonable accounts of impact get regurgitated into nonsense on a regular basis.

The key misunderstanding is around things like media appearances, speaking at events, and ‘public engagement’. People think they are impact, but they are not. Or they are not necessarily.

Before we get into that, let’s unpack ‘public engagement’.

About 20 per cent of the time ‘public engagement’ refers to events which actually engage the public. People are engaged in some active process of doing something – for example, when some archaeologists run a sensory workshop at the local library where people get to literally touch and smell fragments of the past, and to discuss them with each other and with the experts.

80 per cent of the time ‘public engagement’ means lobbing information in the broad general direction of the public – perhaps via a website, or a newspaper article, or that most random instrument of all, the radio – in the hope that bits of it might hit the public brain and stick there.

Neither of these kinds of thing are impact per se, although the sensory workshop one sounds more like impact than the lobbing one.

So what is impact, again, exactly? REF-type impact is when a person or organisation in the world changes what they do because of some research that you did at university.

Whether you had a ‘public engagement’ event for eight people, or were watched by five million people on BBC2, neither of those things is impact, but when you receive an email from one or two of them (whether one or two out of the eight, or the five million), where someone says that they changed what they do in the world because of your super thing – then we’re talking impact.

So does this mean that doing things in libraries or newspapers or radio is a waste of time, since it’s mostly not impact? Not at all. Because in order to achieve the proper impact – people changing what they do in the world because of your research – then of course they necessarily have to have heard about your research. So ways of getting your message to people in the world are vitally important for impact, although they are not impact.

This is, potentially, a bit confusing when you’re trying to explain impact to academics. On the one hand, you might think it seems reasonably straightforward. But the evidence – namely, thousands of academics who still don’t really know what ‘impact’ is – suggests otherwise.

In the hope of making things clearer, I offer my ‘staircase’ model of impact. It includes a mere three steps:

→ On the bottom step, you have your excellent research.

→ On the top step, you have impact.

The problem faced by everyone is how you get from the bottom to the top step. The answer is, of course, via the middle step.

→ On the middle step you have all the public events, social media, online videos, appearances or features in traditional media, public engagement workshops, and anything else you might think of doing to get information about your research out into the world.

So, to put it in the right order, it goes:

1. Marvellous research.
2. Interesting communication about that research.
3. If you’re lucky: impact.

Here it is in handy infographic format:



To achieve impact, you do of course need a flourishing bottom step, which is your interesting and delightful research. From the bottom step, you can’t really see what the top step – the impact – might look like, and that doesn’t matter.

The good news is that you have the ability to generate a fruitful middle step, when then may enable you to hop up to the top. The middle step, the communication phase, may be quite a scattergun affair – you can try out different things and mostly then won’t hit an impact target. That’s okay because they don’t all have to. You can do 20 interesting bits of public communication and you only need one or two of them to have the impact result you’re looking for.

So you can jump up and down on the middle step, doing interesting things which inform people about your work. Those things are worth doing anyway. Occasionally, and perhaps seemingly at random, those activities will land you on the top step. It’s difficult to plan for, because you don’t know exactly who might be paying attention, or what reasons there might be that your research is meaningful to them.

But what we do know is, if you weren’t on the middle step you would have little chance getting to the top step.

You need the communication and engagement activities, the middle step, to get to the actual impact, at the top. Each thing you do on that middle step won’t necessarily carry you to the impact, but one of them might, and that’s all you need.

One Response to “Stairway to impact”

  1. Jon Wood

    I like this explanation and the model is simple. It should never be forgotten that elements like public engagement are potential pathways that exist throughout all time frames of your research and not solely at the end. Likewise, it is important to plan for impact as evaluation of your impact is easiest when you approach it strategically.


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