The CREDS guide to embedding impact from the start of a programme.
If you are one of those researchers who think about impact towards the end of your project when you are writing it up, you are not alone! This is often the case because the research is the priority and the next project soon beckons. However, there is another way.
Instead, to enable your research or project to achieve maximum real-world results, impact should be considered from the very beginning. Achieving engagement and impact can improve your research quality, enhance your reputation and demonstrate how any public money used to fund your project is benefiting society.
All this means you will need a plan to decide how you will create an impact – and how you will record it – from as early as the draft proposal stage.
Only when impact is embedded as a main aim of your research project or centre can it become a golden thread which is sewn through every part of the project, at all levels and by all staff.
From the start, CREDS was designed to produce impactful results. The achievement of measurable impact was one of its three main aims, and a priority from the initial proposal stage. This meant that impact was ‘baked in’ right from the beginning.
Include communications skills in your hiring mix
Naturally, a research centre will – and should be – heavily weighted towards hiring research professionals and specialists who can pursue answers to the research questions your centre aims to answer.
Nevertheless, larger research centres should also consider having a core team of knowledge exchange and communications professionals who can fully focus on getting the key messages out beyond academia.
After all, most research professionals are highly skilled in undertaking studies and writing up the results, but do not have the time – and perhaps not the confidence – to ensure the headlines from their work reach the right audience.
Having a core team to both provide this function and support researchers to engage with stakeholder gives a research centre the ability to start external conversations – which often lead to new partners and opportunities for the project – as well as contributing to the end goal of impacts for businesses, policy-makers, wider society and individuals.
The CREDS core team model
The CREDS programme was particularly well-resourced through the size and combination of roles included within the core team. This team of ten acted as the focus of communications and knowledge exchange with stakeholders, both inside and outside academia, while also being responsible for the programme management of the centre. The team consisted of a:
- Centre Director: responsible for achieving the aims of the programme.
- Centre Manager: responsible for operationally overseeing the programme; developing, implementing and resourcing the Communication & Engagement Strategy and Plan; and financial management of the Flexible Fund and Core Team budgets.
- Knowledge Exchange Managers x 3 (research/academia, business/industry and policy): responsible for supporting researchers to identify stakeholders, making contact with the relevant people, setting up, managing and facilitating interaction and relationship building, maintaining continuity of contact and exchange of knowledge for mutual benefit and learning in a two-way process to assist with the journey from research towards impact.
- Government Affairs: responsible for developing relationships with Whitehall, identifying relevant topics and teams that CREDS research could support (including evidence and policy development) and bringing researchers into contact with people in national Government.
- Communications and Web Manager: responsible for generating content through liaison with the consortium and the use of external communications tools to promote that content to appropriate audiences (including the website, newsletter, social media and the media).
- Designer and Editor: responsible for brand guardianship, creating and maintaining the website, generating or sourcing images and designing reports and promotional material
- Administrators x 2: responsible for supporting the core team, event management, development and maintenance of the Energy Demand Research Network (EDRN) database (2,000+ contacts) and consortium master lists (160+ contacts), acting as the initial point of contact for the Centre and secretariat of the Executive Management Team and Advisory Board.
The scale of core team resources allowed the Communication & Engagement Strategy and Plan to be implemented far more than is often the case for comparable research programmes, and played a key role in enabling and amplifying impact.
For example, the CREDS 2019 Shifting the Focus report covered nine topic areas. It stated that compared to increased energy supply, reduced energy demand – together with improved energy efficiency, greater flexibility and decarbonised fuels – has a much wider range of benefits, notably for health and employment. We focused on getting media attention and gave an exclusive to the BBC including an interview of the Director on Radio 4’s Today programme. In the first five days after the launch, the CREDS website news item and report publication page were viewed more than 1,000 times and the PDF of the report was downloaded 873 times. It has remained our most popular report with over 7,000 views and 3,000 downloads to date.
Build the capacity of researchers
Many of the key skills involved in achieving impact – such as disseminating findings, engaging audiences and sharing knowledge – fall outside the traditional competencies expected of researchers.
Part of the role of an impactful research centre is to source, promote and deliver the coaching, guidance and training that will equip researchers with the necessary understanding and skills to create impact with their research.
CREDS capacity building
The CREDS core team carried out a literature review to identify the key factors behind effective knowledge exchange. From this, the team created a peer-reviewed conference paper which concluded that selecting the appropriate stakeholders and developing the right messages for the right people, at the right time and in the right way, is critical.
Following on from this, the core team arranged bespoke training sessions for each research theme, helping them to identify opportunities for impact, enable peer-to-peer support and create a plan to maintain momentum.
The core team also gave researchers one-to-one coaching when new papers or reports were published to develop a joint promotion plan. This plan would include both centralised, high level activities as well as researcher-based activities. The plan covered identifying the audience, marketing tools, social media, timing and any follow-on activities to maximise engagement with the research and the potential for future impact.
The core team created a series of four guides to support researchers and professional staff on ‘The journey from research to impact’ which includes an overview, a how to promote research, how to undertake knowledge exchange and how to monitor and record impact.
Identify your audiences
By knowing from the start who you want to impact, you can focus the resources you have more effectively on communicating intentionally and specifically with your chosen audiences.
Without a clear audience in mind, it’s too easy to waste time pursuing audiences who may be more straightforward to reach but less relevant to the impact you want to achieve.
For example, it might be simpler to get published in a specialist journal than speak to government decision-makers, but if it’s structural change that’s needed, then your focus needs to be on influencing policy. Occasionally it’s ok to have a broad audience in mind, such as national policy-makers. This was the case for the Positive Low Energy Futures scenarios. It was fortuitous that Go-Science were considering doing a similar piece of work at around the time that the project was launched. However, this is the exception rather than the rule: the results of this work were very strongly promoted with significant resources from both the core team and theme staff, so it reached a much wider audience than would be the case with the average academic paper.
CREDS’ three audience types
From the beginning, CREDS identified the key stakeholder groups for the centre’s research as being policy & government affairs, business & industry and research & academia. This meant each of the three knowledge exchange managers had a clearly defined audience to target, and could focus their time and efforts on creating and maintaining relationships within the stakeholder group they were responsible for.
Appoint theme liaisons to bridge the gap
The majority of large research centres are divided into specific, well-defined themes or work packages that helps to manage the array of individual projects more sensibly and effectively than collating them under a single umbrella.
Each theme develops deep technical knowledge and a database of expert contacts, all of which can seem out-of-reach for the core team.
To bridge this gap, appoint a ‘theme liaison’ within the core team for each of the themes or work packages. This role-holder can invest time in a building a deeper understanding of that theme’s challenges, evidence base and hot topics. They can also feedback to the core team, with a view to identifying opportunities for cross-theme and trans-disciplinary working and the sharing of key stakeholder contacts.
As an added bonus, the role-holder will benefit from exposure to all the different research carried out under that theme. The enhanced responsibility can also help attract candidates who are looking for an additional challenge in their next role, and benefit the post-holder’s ability to stand out from the crowd when pursuing future career opportunities.
Using theme leads and liaisons to develop CREDS’ external relationships and access to contacts
CREDS’ research is focused around the following 10 themes:
- Buildings & energy
- Transport & mobility
- Materials & products
- Digital society
- Policy & governance
- Decarbonisation of heat
- Fuel and transport policy in the UK’s energy transition (FAIR)
- Decarbonisation of steel
- Lessons from lockdown
Each of these has a ‘theme leader’ who is responsible for developing relationships with relevant stakeholders in their area of research. This ensures there is clear responsibility for this role. For example, the theme leader for flexibility built very good relationships with Ofgem and the National Grid, leading to regular and mutually beneficial exchanges of information between researchers, industry and government.
In addition, each theme had a ‘theme liaison’ – a single point of contact within the core team. There were regular meetings between the theme liaison and theme lead that enabled the core team to have a deeper technical understanding of the research within each of the themes and share contacts across themes. The interaction between all staff in the consortium was also enhanced by six-monthly whole-centre meetings.
Seek impact at every opportunity
Despite assigning particular responsibilities to specific roles, the requirement to achieve and record impact should extend through to every job description and centre activity carried out.
By highlighting the importance of impact in job descriptions, applicants and successful candidates are primed to understand that it will be an element of their day-to-day tasks.
To follow this through on a group level as well, the recording and celebration of impact should be a standing agenda item in meetings, and a repeated headline in mid-term reviews and annual reports. Case studies are also a good way of capturing the ‘cause and effect’ process, while storytelling is often a more engaging way of letting people know what has happened.
Lastly, a centre focusing on having an impact in this way also needs both a shared understanding of what counts as impact and a way of recording it centrally. A clear definition will differentiate what counts as your centre’s outputs (for example research papers, briefing notes, consultation responses, blogs and events etc.), as opposed to the impact of those outputs (for example, citation in and/or changes to policies, processes and procedures as a result of the centre’s findings).
To avoid duplicating entries or an inconsistent approach, members of the core team can manage the record-keeping, noting down dates, links, comments and any other details about each entry.
Identifying and amplifying impact
From training to whole-centre meetings, impact has been central to everything CREDS does.
It features in internal communications, including a fortnightly consortium newsletter, as well as in wider external communications such as the CREDS website, social media platforms, press briefings and a monthly newsletter. These regular updates provide and celebrate impact as well as highlighting future events and opportunities.
CREDS has also funded nine projects using Impact Accelerator Awards from a flexible fund. Researchers are able to apply for awards to pursue specific, additional projects that have a high likelihood of real-world impact.
But how then, to capture and collate it all, as well as ensure CREDS are capturing cause and effect – as far as is possible – rather than just centre outputs?
All impact is logged centrally in a spreadsheet divided into themes as well as an ‘overall’ category for cross-theme impact. Activities are drawn initially from quarterly reports and outputs tables compiled by the theme leads, with cause and effect relationships discussed with the centre manager. These conversations often lead to identifying future impact case studies, as well as more straightforward records of impact. Outputs are recorded separately to ensure CREDS are capturing the result of the work and not the work itself.
Together with the focus on impact as a key aim from the start, the hiring of a core team with knowledge exchange, stakeholder engagement and communications competences along with the use of identified audiences and strong connections to the theme leads, combine to create a centre which is focused not only on the carrying out of excellent research, but also on using its findings to achieve the maximum impact possible.
Banner photo credit: Maths Institute, University of Oxford. Photo: Steph Ferguson