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Funders lost on the pathway to impact encouraged to be more ‘DECISIVE’

The importance of having impact

In the UK at least, funders and researchers are under increasing pressure to justify the upfront allocation and downstream spending of their money in terms of its potential, or actual, impacts on society at large.

As one who has spent much of the last decade helping organisations to understand and communicate the wider social relevance of the research they fund, I can’t help but see this movement as a good thing. The swathe of impacts revealed by the most recent Research Excellence Framework provides an entry point to an online cornucopia of recent achievements of UK research. In parallel, improvements in the accountability of research and increasing awareness of its health, economic and social impacts help to demonstrate a return on public investments in UK science.

Minimising the burden

Increased accountability places increased demands on researchers’ time. On the one hand, the harmonisation of post-grant reporting (via Researchfish) now in place across many UK research charities and the Research Councils has the potential to reduce duplicated efforts by researchers. On the other, experts recommend caution and a more responsible use of metrics in broader research evaluation and impact assessment activities.

Somewhere in the midst of these tempestuous impact-buffeted waters lies the central question for funders: how do we maximise the chances of the research we fund having an impact?

Be ‘DECISIVE’ – suggestions for funders

It is with this in mind that the Policy Research in Science and Medicine (PRiSM) unit has published a report drawing together findings from a decade’s-worth of studies investigating the social and economic impacts of biomedical science – a ‘DECISIVE’ approach to research funding – Figure 1.

Figure 1: a ‘DECISIVE’ approach to research funding - eight lessons based on characteristics of high-impact research [click image to enlarge]

Based on a series of three case study-based evaluations of arthritis, cardiovascular and stroke, and mental health research (the ‘Project Retrosight’ series) the ‘DECISIVE’ approach comprises of eight lessons for biomedical and health research funders:

  1. Different skills: Fund researchers with more than just research skills — individuals are key when it comes to translation of research into wider impact.
  2. Engaged: Suggest your researchers engage with non-academic stakeholders to help their work have a wider impact.
  3. Clinical: For greater impact on patient care within 10-20 years, fund clinical rather than basic research.
  4. Impact on society: If you want to have a wider impact, don't just fund for academic excellence.
  5. Size: Bigger isn't necessarily better when it comes to the size of a research grant.
  6. International: For high academic impact, fund researchers who collaborate internationally and support them to do so.
  7. Variety: Simple metrics will only capture some of the impact of your research.
  8. Expectations: Most broader social and economic impact will come from just a few projects.

Impact in action

The lessons encourage funders to think outside of what might be considered ‘norms’ of research funding. Though not to be taken simplistically as an ‘impact recipe’, the factors in the ‘DECISIVE’ approach may help funders to revisit their research strategies and incorporate characteristics associated with wider impact. By applying evidence of what works when funding for impact, research managers and members of grants panels should be better equipped to make decisions that support the translation of research into broader social and economic gains.

Adam Kamenetzky is a research fellow at The Policy Research in Science and Medicine (PRiSM) unit, which brings together research expertise from RAND Europe and the Policy Institute at King's College London to deliver research-based evidence to the UK’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). PRiSM also contributes to the emerging ‘science of science’ policy field in the UK, Europe and internationally.

The DECISIVE report is available in full at: bit.ly/prismretrosight

For further insights and updates you can follow PRiSM on Twitter: @PRISMscience