What is Impact Literacy?
Applying research to social, economic, environmental and political problems is a longstanding feature of academic practice, concretised in the ‘Third Mission’ of universities alongside teaching and research. The principle of research benefit is in no means new, but the significance of impact has been intensified in recent years through requirements in both funding applications and national assessment (such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework). Whilst the formalities of these expectations vary globally, there is an ongoing and clear evolution towards the need to ‘prove the social benefit’ of academic endeavours.
Impact can be most simply shorthanded to the provable effects (benefits) of research in the ‘real world’.
Impact is well showcased across the sector, with funders, universities and other organisations routinely publishing case study examples of significant and large scale effects. The UK’s REF 2014 impact database provides perhaps the largest library of case studies, with over 6000 accounts of research-based benefits.
However, selectively positive accounts of impact mask the scale of effort needed to convert research into effect, including the places it ‘goes wrong’. In tandem, assessment and financially led agendas can easily divert our attention towards only those effects ‘big enough’ to be rewarded, and risk sidelining the needs of our local communities. Similarly, narrowly focused approaches can encourage short-termism and irresponsible metrics, with impact pursued only so far as it aligns with assessment timestamps or impressiveness.
Our response to this is to support sector wide critical understanding of impact, which we call impact literacy (Bayley and Phipps, 2017*; 2019**). It is essential that those within the research ecosystem are supported to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to meaningfully connect research to society. Our model of Impact Literacy reflects the need for individuals and institutions to understand impact across three key dimensions:
- The practices that create impact (the ‘how’)
- The identification, assessment, evidencing and articulation of impact endpoints (the ‘what’), and
- The successful integration of these by various people (the ‘who’), to generate social change.
…all rooted on the reasons, purpose and values (‘why’) the impact is needed. Individual impact literacy focuses on the development of increasingly advanced understanding of impact, whilst institutional literacy reflects the depth of supportive infrastructure needed for an impact culture to thrive. Ultimately, impact literacy is a call to centralise meaningful benefit within the impact agenda, with individuals and institutions alike working towards critical and organisationally supported activity.
*Bayley, J.E. and Phipps, D., 2019. Building the concept of research impact literacy. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice, 15(4), pp.597-606. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/174426417X15034894876108
**Bayley J and Phipps D. Extending the concept of research impact literacy: levels of literacy, institutional role and ethical considerations [version 1; peer review: 2 approved]. Emerald Open Res 2019, 1:14