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Research England today (Thurs Jan 31) released the final guidance on REF2021 submissions. I took a look at whether there have been any changes to the draft REF guidelines in relation to public engagement.

I can confirm that impacts arising from public engagement with research are still valid, and will be assessed equitably.

The only major change is that Panel A will no longer insist on quantative evidence - qualitative evidence is acceptable. There's some additional detail about how continued and shared impacts should be treated, and examples of how research and impacts may feature in different Units of Assessment.

Whilst it's not explicitly mentioned in the guidance on submissions, don't worry, the definition of impact includes those achievable through PER, and it is mentioned in the panel criteria and working methods doc:

"Impact takes place through a wide variety of mechanisms. It may effect change or enrichment for local, national or international communities, groups or individuals. Consequently, public engagement may be an important feature of many case studies, as the mechanism by which the impact claimed has been achieved."

They also make a point of saying that impacts arising through engaging the public with research won't be considered to be lesser than other impacts:

"Sub-panels will welcome, and assess equitably, case studies describing impacts achieved through public engagement, either as the main impact described or as one facet of a wider range of impacts."

Reach and Significance are still them main components of impact they'll be looking at, the merits of which they'll make judgements on together - not individually. Reach won't be considered in terms of sheer number alone - when reporting numbers reached, what they actually want to see is what proportion of the potential group of people or groups of people you have managed to engage. Of course, significance then wants an answer to the 'so what?' question.

"Significance will be understood as the degree to which the impact has enabled, enriched, influenced, informed or changed the performance, policies, practices, products, services, understanding, awareness or wellbeing of the beneficiaries."

The final guidance continues to acknowledge the breadth of impacts and ways of achieving them, at many levels, any level of maturity, and also that any single case study can contain a blend of impacts achieved through different means, e.g., "a new drug can generate both health and economic impact, a new energy technology can generate both environmental and economic impact, and a new exhibition or performance can generate cultural, economic and social benefits."

Unsurprisingly, they expect that any claims made in an impact case study will need to be backed up by evidence. This is something that wasn't always achieved in REF2014 in relation to PER, which is why using those case studies as a guide might not be the best idea. This isn't because it's particularly difficult to capture outcomes and impacts - if you plan to do so at the time and are clear about what your objectives are. 

Meanwhile, my previous advice holds:

What does this mean for the public engagement with research I’m planning?

Nothing. The general advice we provide about planning high quality, effective public engagement still applies. Public engagement with research is a highly valuable activity to undertake for myriad reasons; it can improve research and have positive impacts on you, the researcher, as well as wider society – even if it’s not ‘REFable’.

If anything, the guidance now explicitly acknowledges a large breadth of processes and activities that can lead to impact, and that impact isn’t necessarily something that just pops out beautifully from a sequential process, but can be complicated, and something that happens at all sorts of different levels, in all sorts of different ways.

If you have a well-thought out public engagement project, that has defined objectives, defined audiences/participants/beneficiaries, appropriate methodologies, and that has a plan to evaluate and monitor the desired outcomes and impacts, then it may well be that (as long as it takes place within the eligible window and is underpinned by excellent research) then you may well be impactful, and therefore have an impact case study on your hands.

Departments are collating potential impact case studies, so if you think you do, or will, have a potential case study, it’s best to get in touch with the REF contact in your department.