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We've produced a short guide to help you think about and plan for PER as an impact case study in REF2029, including what you can do now (spoiler: evaluate).

Public Engagement with Research (PER) describes the many ways that the public can be involved in the design, conduct and dissemination of research, serving as a valid route for generating impact from research activities and outputs.

If you’re already doing PER with a view to scaling it up or think it will have the potential to be an Impact Case Study in the next Research Excellence Framework (REF2029) exercise, it’s best to act now to ensure you can demonstrate your impact. This brief guide has signposting to resources and where you can find support.

The value of PER in Impact Case Studies

Evidence shows that impact case studies featuring PER are competitive, with the most successful narratives combining various pathways to impact (internal analysis). Additionally, PER has been highlighted as a strength in feedback to Oxford’s UOAs.

What is impact?

Impact is the benefit or change resulting from research activities and outputs, encompassing economic, social, health, wellbeing and environmental changes.

There are examples at the bottom of this guide of how PER can lead to impact.

Engagement and Impact in REF

The ‘Engagement and Impact’ element is proposed to constitute 25% of the REF assessment, and will be comprised of Impact Case Studies and disciplinary/unit-level statements.

While ‘engagement’ is newly emphasised, PER has been and continues to be a valid activity for Impact Case Studies, whether as a standalone focus of an Impact Case Study, or in combination with other methods.

The requirement for case studies to be linked to minimum 2* research has been lifted, allowing for a broader scope of underpinning work. As with REF2021, this can underpinned by a ‘body of research work’.

What you can do now

There isn’t a one-size-fits all approach to doing PER and therefore evaluating PER. You might think it’s too early to think about evaluation, but planning evaluation before you deliver anything, e.g., when drafting your grant proposal, can help you better define your objectives and relevant stakeholders, helping to enhance the planning process in general.

Even if you have already delivered some activities, the REF assessment period for eligible impacts is likely to be 2021-2028, meaning it might not be too late either.

Here are some pointers to help you ensure your engagement impact can be evidenced:


Key Criteria for Assessment

  • Significance: this measures the extent and benefit of the change achieved, including direct effects on individuals (e.g., knowledge, behaviour changes) and resulting broader, ripple effects (e.g., societal, environmental, economic).
  • Reach: focuses on who was engaged, prioritising relevance, diversity and/or the proportion of the potential group reached over sheer numbers.

Impacts are assessed according to both these criteria. This means, e.g., that stating that a particular media output reached 9 million people without an idea of the resulting ‘so what’, is not likely, on its own, to be sufficient. A good way to think of this comes from Fast Track Impact: “Put simply, if my research saves someone’s life, I’ve made a significant impact; if my research saves millions of people’s lives, the impact is no more significant, but now it has reach as well.”

  • Rigour (under consultation): aims to assess how the engagement was done, e.g., emphasising ethical practices, clear objectives, and inclusive methods. If taken forward, it is likely to highlight the importance of ethical stakeholder interactions and tailored engagement strategies. How this will be assessed, such as suggested indicators, is under consultation. It is likely to follow well established best practices in PER.

Lessons from previous REFs

  • Observations from REF2021: The Main Panel Overview Reports observed that there was a lack of submitted Impact Case Studies featuring PER. A significant potential factor identified was the absence of timely evaluation.
  • Institutional Experience: Reflecting on our experiences in 2021, we encountered instances where promising Impact Case Studies featuring PER had to be abandoned. The lack of timely evaluation efforts meant that capturing tangible outcomes and impacts wasn’t feasible after the fact.
  • Impact isn’t always predictable: Impact can emerge unpredictably, on average over a decade after the initial research. The delayed and non-linear nature of its outcomes can make evaluation seem less immediate. However meaningful engagement can be planned for, and this can be the basis of your evaluation planning, which may evolve over time.

Ways that PER can lead to impact

The below is based on a resource created by NCCPE following their analysis of PE in REF2014 impact case studies. They are simplified models that can help you reflect on your approaches, but they are not comprehensive.

Public engagement in these cases may be the sole pathway or may enhance or inform parallel or subsequent pathways.


Path A: Enlightenment and Empathy

Research generates powerful new knowledge and meaning.

Public engagement brings that knowledge into the public sphere, animating conversation, inspiring learning, reflection and empathy: circulating new ways of making sense of a complex, ever-changing world.

Motivated by: Making the research meaningful and persuasive. This is done by stimulating learning, influencing public debate, changing understandings, challenging conventional wisdom, fostering empathy.

Methods used: media, websites, debates, archives, social media, publications, performances, exhibitions, presentations, festivals, etc.

What’s the pay-off? Enlightenment: inspiring wonder, curiosity and enhanced learning, meaning and sense-making; changed understandings; increased empathy. Criticism: provoking challenge, scrutiny and debate; holding to account.


Path B: Social Innovation

Involving the public as partners in research brings their insights and expertise to bear on how ‘the world works’. It helps generate innovation, enhance the quality of life and improve accountability and decision-making.

Motivated by: making research relevant, practical. This is done by changing standards/regulations, influencing new products and services, changing policies/planning, influencing decision-making, influencing the public realm.

Methods used: Consultation, dialogues, co-production, advisory groups, etc.

What’s the pay-off? Innovation: new ideas and ways of acting, new products and knowledge, creating, galvanising change. Reflexivity: prompting dialogue and deliberation, exploring risk, informing decision-making.


Path C: Social Action

Involving the public in research can help people to develop their skills and capabilities, to ‘live’ and ‘work’ better. Involving them in critiquing and influencing the practices of key agencies – like government or the public sector – enhances the capacity, capability and equity of society.

Motivated by: making research motivating and useful by inspiring participation and progression; teaching new skills; changing behaviours; influencing practitioner and policy-makers’ behaviour/practice/standards; fostering collaboration.

Methods used: Outreach, education, life-long learning, network building, training and development.

What’s the pay-off? Connectivity: building networks, encouraging participation and involvement. Capability: building skills, influencing behaviours and practices, empowering.

This guidance was produced by Dr Michaela Livingstone-Banks, Dr Anuj Bhatt and Dr Irene Scullion.