Why isn’t our research having a greater impact on UK society?


by Mark Reed

Throughout history, civilisations have risen and fallen on their ability to generate new knowledge and innovate in the face of major challenges. In the UK, many of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy are knowledge-based. This is made very clear at the Birmingham Made Me Design Expo 2013 at Millennium Point this month, which argues that design and innovation are drivers of wealth creation. This thirst for knowledge goes right to the heart of Government, with policy-makers increasingly striving to make “evidence-based” decisions on controversial issues like the designation of Marine Protected Areas and the creation of new markets for peatland carbon – issues that my colleagues and I at Birmingham School of the Built Environment are researching.

I think that we, as researchers, often take for granted that we have privileged access to the latest knowledge, forgetting that this is often locked behind publisher pay-walls. We have the skills to generate answers to some of the biggest questions facing society, and yet as a research community in the UK, only a small proportion of our work actually provides answers to these big questions. So why isn’t more UK research having a greater impact on society?

I think that broadly there are two answers to this question. First, there are many researchers who tell me that “this whole impact agenda” isn’t what they came into research for – they have always been motivated by an intrinsic curiosity about the world around them, and love just understanding how and why things work the way they do. And of course there’s nothing wrong with that – many important discoveries have been made out of sheer curiosity. But many of these researchers feel under siege from people like me, who argue that research funded by taxpayers should demonstrate its relevance to society.

IMG_2185To those whose only concern is the excellence of their research, my argument is simple. By engaging with and tailoring your work to the needs of the people who might use it, it is often possible to get additional funding to do more and better research. It may seem like a selfish argument, but it is borne out in my own research. My colleagues and I were awarded just over £1M by the UK Government’s Research Councils for the Sustainable Uplands project between 2005-2012. By demonstrating the relevance of our research to a range of businesses, Government agencies and other likely users of our work, we’ve now almost matched this in funding from groups who want us to tailor our work to their operational contexts. This has spawned over 50 papers in international peer-reviewed academic journals. You can hardly say that reaching out in this way undermined the excellence of our work – quite the reverse.

For most of us, though, I think the principal reason that our research isn’t having the impact we’d like it to have is that, despite our best intentions, we just don’t have the skills and confidence we need to really make a difference. Luckily, best practice guidelines, toolkits and courses now exist to provide us with the skills we need to make that difference.

Essentially, all of this great material boils down to one thing: relationships. Start talking to the people who might use your research as early as you possibly can, from the very germ of an idea. Then work with these people to get funding, carry out the research, and interpret and disseminate your findings. When you need to manage relationships with a large number of very different interest groups, you might need to structure this quite carefully. For example, it can be useful to:

  • Systematically consider who might be interested in your research right at the start
  • Form stakeholder advisory panels to make sure you get input from a cross-section of likely users at key points in the research process; and
  • Develop a knowledge exchange strategy that helps you come up with ways of achieving specific impacts with different groups across the lifetime of a research project.

manual:brandingI’ve been researching knowledge exchange processes for a number of years now, trying to work out how a certain piece of evidence from research travels from person to person through social networks, how it is transformed along the way, blocked or passed on, and how it then gets into policy and practice (or not as the case may be). We’ve taken this evidence, and through workshops with knowledge exchange experts and professionals from the Research Councils, we’ve come up with a national training course, designed to give researchers the skills and confidence they need to do more effective knowledge exchange, and generate impact from their work.

Find out more here: http://sustainable-learning.org/training/

Free training for BCU staff and research students will start again in September 2013 – contact me if you want to reserve a place.



Mark Reed is a Professor of Interdisciplinary Environmental Research at the Birmingham School of the Built Environment. Find out more about his work at: www.markreed.webeden.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @lecmsr.

In the first year since launching their knowledge exchange training course in 2013, he and his colleagues have (or are booked to have) trained researchers and managers of research from the Universities of Nottingham, Newcastle, Sheffield, Hull, Portsmouth, Exeter, Lancaster, Manchester, East Anglia, Reading, Leeds, Kings College London, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Science & Technology Funding Council (STFC), British Geological Survey, the British Ecological Society, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK Climate Impacts Programme, National Oceanography Centre, Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), Scottish Government and their Main Research Providers (James Hutton Institute, Moredun Research Institute and Scotland’s Rural College), Natural England, Department for Environment & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), and the Permaculture Association.



  1. This is a great blog to ease academic researchers more into considering and actually implementing strategies to have an impact in the wider professional, policy and public realm. Impact, however, is interpreted in different ways and associated with different outcomes or outputs depending who you talk to or try to ‘sell’ your impact to. Read for example Athene Donald’s blog http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/05/07/absence-of-impact-used-to-be-the-fashionable-thing-to-claim/ who points out that ‘Pathways to impact’ statements and work of research council projects is quite different from ‘Impact’ as measured in the upcoming REF (Research Excellence Framework).

    The measuring rod for what qualifies as impact and how to measure it varies and evolves. Pleasing all target audiences and hitting all targets is a tough task and essentially we have to pick our own areas of strengths, define our own vision of what we’d like to achieve and therefore pave and walk our paths to impact in our own exploratory way.

    If you have any unusual and revealing stories to tell, would be great if you add a comment!

  2. Interesting point – I wonder what we’ll perceive impact to be 50 years from now, or whether we’ll even care – culture changes and with it, what we believe to be important. But at the moment, and increasingly since the last assessment of research in 2008, we are in a culture that increasingly wants value for taxpayer’s money. And I personally believe that if taxpayers are funding our research (this may not always be the case of course), then we have a responsibility to strive for beneficial outcomes for society.

    For me there’s no conflict between what RCUK ask for in their Pathways to Impact and what HEFCE ask for in their Impact Template and impact case studies for REF, as the guest blogger for LSE Impact Blog suggests. It would be unreasonable to expect all research to be able to guarantee that it has an impact at the point of asking for funding, but I think it is reasonable to expect researchers to think about what they might do to optimise the likelihood that impacts might occur (hence the focus on credible pathways rather than the impacts themselves at that point). But equally, I think if society wants to reward and incentivise impact, we need to give the prizes to those who have actually achieved impact, rather than those who are still on the path and haven’t yet achieved anything.

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