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UKRI recently announced that they were reviewing the research grant process, and as part of this review there will be changes to their requirements for Pathways to Impact - a mechanism used by many to plan and resource public engagement with research - so what does this mean for public engagement with research (PER)? I've collected my thoughts below.

If you missed it, the announcement went along the lines of... impact is super important, so much so that it's now core to research culture, and we want said culture to be as effective and efficient as possible, thus...

"Applicants to UK Research and Innovation – including the Research Councils – will no longer be required to provide a ‘Pathways to Impact’ plan or complete an ‘Impact Summary’ within grant applications from 1 March 2020."

"Hurrah!" many cried! Pathways to Impact was by no means perfect. So much so that STFC investigated and reported on some of the issues of that system. It was something often left to the end, considered difficult to get right, and ultimately not really part of the consideration for funding decisions (or so the perception went).

But if impact is really important, how exactly will the funding councils be supporting efforts to encourage the researchers it funds to consider the potential impacts of their research, and appropriately plan and resource ways of achieving said impact - and for this blog, specifically for PER?

Whilst those of us outside of UKRI can't really know the answer to this until they announce how they'll be handling impact (and therefore PER), what we do know is that 1. Impact is important - they said so, there are strong drivers at various levels for it, and Impact is going to constitute a quarter of the 'marks' in the next REF. 2. UKRI has developed a new vision for Public Engagement and is investing in supporting and developing PE. 3. They've said they'll be piloting other processes through 2020.

So what can we glean from this?

1. That URKI recognised that 'Pathways' wasn't an effective and efficient mechanism.

2. That we'll know the answer to what 'replacement' there will be for impact soon, but for now you will detail potential impact in the Case for Support.

3. It's probably unlikely that there will be no support or some sort of resource for impact.

Various potential avenues are open - currently Impact will be incorporated into the main case for support, and researchers will be expected to include requests for funds as part of their overall budget. Maybe it'll still be compulsory. Maybe it won't. Maybe they will assess 'post-award' mechanisms, such as beefing up or modifying existing schemes, like Impact Acceleration Accounts. Maybe they'll focus less on process and more on training and development. Maybe they'll do challenge-focused calls for impact funds. Maybe all of that, or something completely different. Will it be scrutinised and part of assessments for funding, and play a role in the decisions made? Will you be expected to report on what you said you would do? So many questions...

Ultimately, I'm guessing we'll get some interim or other detailed guidance in time for grants that will be submitted after the change on 1 March, beyond 'include it in case for support', so it may be a case of changing where and perhaps how much space you have to detail your plans, and ability to request funds. After all, we know that in MPLS departments, on average, around 15% of researchers are requesting funding for PER through Pathways, so there's certainly demand for accessing resource.

Obviously, this does raise the question of whether or not impact will indeed have the same profile it had via Pathways - even if it wasn't the most effective tool, it was useful in a number of ways, not least creating a time where researchers could seek out support and information, and it could be provided. 

Whatever happens, don't stop planning effective PER that can be impactful, as we can be confident that Impact isn't going anywhere. Besides, why would you want to do PER that didn't achieve anything?

As soon as we know what the changes will be and what you need to do, we will share information, along with any new resources we can develop to support researchers and those supporting researchers..


You can read far more informed and sophisticated analysis of this, and more, over on Research Professional (requires SSO).