Correctly targeting your audience and specifically tailoring outputs to policymakers is key to improving the impact of your research. Sarah Lester explains how building contacts and targeted dissemination of research requires skills outside those traditionally used in academia.

Since 2009 the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London has been conducting a case study to provide knowledge about the impact of research in helping to inform public policy, which contributes to informing the broader societal understanding of climate change problems and debates about their solutions. The research focuses on measuring and assessing the impact of the Grantham Institute’s climate and energy mitigation work as an example of academic impact. A secondary benefit has been to help the Institute improve its performance in this area. The report includes impact case studies of individual pieces of work, substantive analysis of the institute’s efforts to inform mitigation policy in UK and overseas, and mapping the pool of influence of the Grantham Institute within the climate change and energy communities. The study is part of a Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) funded and London School of Economics led research project on how social science helps shape public policy.

The work, which examines research impact through qualitative analysis and quantitative metrics, essentially ‘researches research’ and aims to understand effective impact and  communication strategies. Our key findings, summarised in the table below, suggest that:

  • Networked institutions such as the Grantham Institute can be valuable in drawing together different strands of academic expertise to focus on particular areas of policy.
  • Effective impact can be achieved by targeting specific audiences and tailoring published outputs and events to them.
  • Effective building of contacts and accurate dissemination of research require skills and techniques beyond those traditionally used in academia and have a significant cost.

The chief finding of the study is that measuring non-academic research outputs may require different indicators to traditional academic citation measurement. For example, audience analysis, logging website citations of reports, and interviews with key policy-makers and business members, are required to understand the impact of research outputs. Four types of research impacts have been identified by this project – impacts created by events and research interactions, project outputs, publications and briefing paper impacts, and academic impacts. The timescales for delivering these impacts can vary significantly, and while it may be appropriate to measure reports and event outputs on a 6 monthly-basis, academic and journal publications may be more appropriately considered under a 5 year reporting system. This suggests that a research portfolio approach to measuring research impacts from organisations such as the Grantham Institute maybe more valuable than only examining citation rates. It is also important to critically evaluate the purpose of the indicator being used. Indicators can be used to measure different stages of research programmes, including the inputs and processes that lay the foundations for a successful programme, as well as the output and outcome indicators which measure its overall success.

These findings suggest several  conclusions regarding the role of policy and research institutions working within an academic environment. In particular the production of policy-relevant briefing papers and peer-reviewed academic publications demonstrates the research capacity of the institute and the value of audience-targeted written material. The Grantham Institute has created a network of contacts across academia, business, and government, which has enabled both the transfer of material, as well as successful collaborations with high-profile institutions. One of the key findings of the project has arisen from the evaluation of the Grantham Institute’s contribution to policy outcomes: whilst academic impact is vital in creating a knowledge-base and understanding of the problem of climate change, many of our case studies point to the importance of translating this into ‘real world’ action. The final conclusion of the report is that data and evidence collection is vital to the success of policy-research institutions: understanding the successes and failures of different methods of translating research is not possible without financial and administrative support in collecting information on the impacts of research.
















An executive summary of the Grantham Institute’s research impact report is available online.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

About the author:
Sarah Lester is the Research and Policy Impact Analyst at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London.

About the Grantham Institute for climate change:
The Grantham institute is committed to driving research on climate change,  and translating it into real world impact. The Institute’s policy activity aims to provide authoritative analysis and assessment of evidence, and the Institute’s ambition is to communicate this research in a relevant way to decision-makers and more widely to inform the often heated and polarised debates about climate change.

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