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Throw away your boiler plates, UKRI's new approach to embedding impact in research grants aims for more creative and meaningful plans. I've taken a look at what each of the research councils are saying about it.

You may recall that at the start of the year UKRI announced that pathways to impact were no longer going to be a requirement as part of research grant applications, part of their efforts to simplify the grant application process.

They were very keen straight away to emphasise that the impact was still an important consideration, saying “the impact agenda is vital - UK Research and Innovation exists to fund the researchers who generate the knowledge that society needs, and the innovators who can turn this knowledge into public benefit.”

What exactly it meant, how impact would be considered, hadn’t been specified so we were left wondering.

Now that things have moved on, despite there being a global pandemic in the meantime, we have a little bit more information so I thought I would cover that here.

Firstly, if not an Impact Summary and Pathway to Impact how, if at all, are researchers expected to describe and explain the potential impact of their research and request funds?

The overall approach is that impact has now become ‘centrally embedded’ into the application and assessment process. Meaning researchers will generally be including impact-generating activities as part of their Case for Support and can still request funds to support these activities as part of their grant proposal.

Rather than a box-ticking exercise, which many saw ‘Pathways’ as, applicants are now free to include impact throughout the case for support, hopefully allowing for more creative and relevant thinking and plans to emerge. What this should hopefully mean is less of the boiler plate content (which, let's face it, is usually not particularly relevant for the research) and a much more relevant and tailored consideration.

This general principle of ‘include your impact activities within the case for support’ applies across the board, but having gone sleuthing on the individual council’s web pages there does seem to be a range of differences. These are mainly in how explicitly they ask for information regarding both social and economic impact in addition to scientific or academic impact, as well as whether they specifically mention public engagement, and indeed what their assessment criteria and reviewer guidance states.

Ultimately, if you want to undertake public engagement, you’ve identified how it’s relevant to helping achieve relevant outcomes and help realise longer-term impacts, there’s nothing to say you shouldn’t, so carry on. Take a look at our guide to public engagement.

If you’re interested in the key points in relation to these changes and public engagement, I’ve covered this in some detail for each science-related council below.

You can skip to your council of interest by clicking one of the links below:

EPSRC

BBSRC

NERC

STFC

MRC

 

**NOTE: in all cases each individual scheme may have different requirements, the below refers to general or ‘standard call’ guidance and this is correct as of the date of publication of this post**

 

EPSRC

Impact will be considered as part of the overall proposal assessment.

This essentially means it will play a role under all assessment criteria, but it is mentioned explicitly under the ‘Quality’ criterion as “the suitability of the proposed methodology and the appropriateness of the approach to achieving impact”. From there it follows that any impact related activities need to be appropriately resourced, planned and include relevant partnerships where necessary.

Practically, this means that as part of your Case for Support you are expected to include information about wider economic and societal context of your proposed research, including who may benefit or be affected, as part of the introductory background. Under ‘National Importance’ applications are expected to explain why the research is important to be supported by the UK tax payer. This is more focused on how the research may help support the prosperity of the nation, the discipline, and how it fits within and strengthens EPSRC’s portfolio. From there you will want to consider how best to include impact generating activities.

EPSRC also says in their guidance that applicants are expected to consider ‘responsible innovation’ as part of their planning and delivery, using their framework (‘AREA’). This isn’t mentioned explicitly in the assessment criteria but they do state an important aspect of this is nurturing meaningful partnerships (which is a criterion). Here, responsible innovation refers to “a process that seeks to promote creativity and opportunities for science and innovation that are socially desirable and undertaken in the public interest”, so obviously public engagement could be key a part of achieving this.

EPSRC further states that they do “not expect applicants to predict the impact of their research, nor are reviewers expected to make assumptions about the probability of the benefits being fully delivered. There is no expectation for impacts to be realised within the lifetime of the research project.”

I read this to mean that you’re expected to think about the wider context and implications of the proposed research, but they won’t hold you to your predictions. I think this could be reassuring for many, and whilst you’re encouraged to undertake activities to help realise the potential impacts, you won’t be judged for not being able to achieve world-changing results within the relatively short period that your grant is active.

Their tips for writing a good Case for Support include:

-          “Proposals where key stakeholders are included in plans to define research problems, shape the course of the research programme, or realise impacts are viewed especially favourably.”

-          “Activities that support impact creation are an integral part of high-quality research programmes. Consider what impacts, for example on society, economy, people or knowledge are appropriate for the research programme.”

-          “Requesting appropriate resources to facilitate impact within applications is encouraged. It is much better to include appropriate costs that will support the realisation of the potential outcomes than to try and save money.

-          “All activities whether research or impact focused must be well thought through. Each should have appropriately allocated and justified resources, as well as designated responsibility for delivery, to demonstrate clearly how they will be achieved.”

Interestingly, they are also committed to the recommendations of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA); UKRI reviewers and panel members are advised not to use journal-based metrics, such as journal impact factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an investigator's contributions, or to make funding decisions.

Public Engagement is included in EPSRC’s guidance for writing your Case for Support, and whilst it isn’t a separate criterion, it is reassuring to see it specifically addressed and encouraged – and hopefully guidance to reviewers will emphasise this also.

Specifically, for public engagement, EPSRC states:

-          Public engagement can be included as part of research proposals, and EPSRC encourage it stating it is a valid route to achieving impact.

-          These activities should be linked to current or recent research – generic outreach is not eligible.

-          Where it forms part of the research process, it should be included in the case for support, or as a work package as part of major programmes.

-          Key considerations include:

  • In addition to communicating science, two-way engagement is encouraged.
  • Public engagement can take part at any point in the research cycle, including during conception and design.
  • Resources eligible under FEC can be requested, including staff and training as well as materials and travel costs.

Read EPSRC’s Guidance for Public Engagement

 

BBSRC

Whilst ‘economic and social impact’ are listed under the criteria against which assessment of research quality will be judged, there appears to be very little information about ‘impact’ and public engagement is not covered at all within the most obvious web pages and guidance for applications – simply that under ‘background’ in your Case for Support you should introduce the research topic and it’s academic and wider context.

The guidance for reviewers does mention that a key consideration will be whether any plans exist within the project proposal to facilitate interactions that ensure such social and economic impact aims are realised.

Looking a little further the separate update that BBSRC published earlier in the year in regards to the removal of pathways states:

“Within the Case for Support you should describe the potential routes to impact from your research programme, and what activities will be undertaken to help realise these benefits. The structure that this takes is flexible; but impact activities should be integrated into appropriate sections of the Case for Support, not presented as an independent work package.”

They are also signed up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment.

Elsewhere, looking under ‘policies’ that applications should uphold, the nearest thing seems to be around knowledge exchange and commercialisation, which for BBSRC is all about ensuring research outcomes are translated to deliver benefits to improve the economy and peoples’ quality of life, but no mention of public engagement specifically.

They do of course have a public engagement section of their website outlining some of their fantastic work, however if I were a researcher looking to see whether PE were ‘allowed’ in research grants, there’s nothing to say it is. Then again, there’s nothing to say it isn’t.

Without explicit permission or encouragement… what does this mean? For applicants and reviewers?

 

NERC

NERC don’t list social and economic impact under the main headings of what’s required within the Case for Support but a deeper read of the application guidelines states that applicants should, in addition the main points, also, “explain how they will enable the potential economic and societal impact of their research to be realised.” They also ask for previous achievements or impacts as part of the ‘track record’ section of the Case for Support.

Any resources required should be included as part of the Justification of Resources.

There’s also a whole section on public engagement within the guide for applying, which explains that researchers have a responsibility to consider where and how best to engage with the public, that public engagement can achieve impact, and that “applicants should outline their ideas for outcome-focussed engagement in the case for support.”

That being said, besides the potential for increased impact a partner can bring, only scientific impact is explicitly mentioned in the guidance for reviewers assessing funding proposals.

NERC has a strategy for public engagement, and support a number of activities, and notably run a £1.3 milllion ‘embedding engagement’ funding programme (for a large programme, not smaller grants for individuals). Part of their strategy is to ‘build the capacity of research to engage’, but beyond the activities and larger funds they run, they’re yet to update their PE pages with regards to Pathways to Impact with information about how their researchers can obtain funding through their research grants.

 

STFC

STFC have separate public engagement funding schemes, along with a number of other programmes supporting PE, so researchers are encouraged to use those.

Assessment criteria of research grants, according to their grants handbook, only mentions economic impact.

 

MRC

Applicants are encouraged to embed how they will or might achieve impact through their project as part of the Case for Support, adequate resources should be requested and detailed through the Justification of Resources.


The Case for Support should have a section called ‘importance’ where you can cover the wider context and need for the research. Under the heading of ‘Exploitation and Dissemination’ as part of the Case for Support you are encouraged to think beyond publication in peer reviewed journals to “indicate how any results arising from the research will be disseminated so as to promote or facilitate take up by users in the health services.”

They specifically refer to public engagement, stating that it falls within activities that can achieve impact, and that well planned public engagement related to the research is encouraged.

“Impact”, including social and economic, is an explicitly stated criteria for assessment under the ‘Scientific Potential’ heading for all grants, bar partnership grants.

 

 

The above is all of course, in addition to the general ‘terms and conditions’ from UKRI for organisations in receipt of grants, which includes this on public engagement:

“In order to foster a research culture which values, recognises and supports public engagement, you must adopt the principles, standards and good practice for public engagement with research set out in the 2010 Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research.”

 

In conclusion...

Rather than people slotting engagement or impact into another box, the new-found freedom of researchers to build in engagement activities into their case for support will hopefully result in more relevant and meaningful activities that are well-planned. For those who don’t want to/it doesn’t make sense to won’t feel forced to add in bolt-on, irrelevant activities that they have no intention to follow through on.

What it will mean in practise is still anyone’s guess. Will the days of boiler plates be behind us? Will the lack of specific assessment criteria in some cases lead to applicants and reviewers assuming it doesn’t matter or thinking it doesn’t count? Will applications featuring PER or impact-related activities versus those that do not be as competitive or looked upon as favourably?

I’ve been reading through and analysing over a hundred research grant proposal’s Pathways to Impacts submitted to a few funders in 2019, and I’ll be comparing those with hopefully the ‘sans pathways’ applications in due course.

What I’ve found so far with Pathways is that almost all grants state the intention to do some form of public engagement – in almost all cases of the ‘inform and inspire’ type with only a handful of exceptions. Many proposals state the intention to create digital resources or attend schools and festivals – none of which are zero cost activities, yet it is rare for any proposal to request resources. You also rarely see a coherent connection between the activities, audiences and impacts and how they are relevant to the research, with justifications around the outcomes the activities might achieve a rare beast to spot indeed.

Watch this space for the full final analysis.

All this to say that I’ve been pondering… if researchers are often struggling to conceptualise, plan and justify impact related activities (especially public engagement) when it was a clear and specific requirement of research grants, what support do we need to put into place to ensure that the potential of this more tailored approach can be fully realised, especially when boiler plates may well become somewhat useless? And will we have the processes and capacity to do so effectively?

Or, will boiler plates continue to rule?

Answers on the back of a postcard welcome.