What is impact?

What does it mean when we talk about impact in research? What's the difference between research results and impact? In this section, the concept of impact is discussed and different categories of impact presented.

Impact is change taking place over time

Progress in science is rarely sudden. The wider, societal, economic or environmental cumulative changes over a longer period of time occurring as a result of research can be defined as impactThe Academy of Finland defines impact as "...the ways in which research influences a wide variety of phenomena and trends in society".

Impact pathway

Impact Pathway is a linear model that shows how research impact is created.  It is, however, important to keep in mind that impact is hard to predict because research is rarely a linear process.  Impact Pathway is an important part of Horizon Europe (HE) research and innovation programme. HE also talks about the Key Impact Pathways, which refers to the three different categories of impact, scientific, economic and societal. 

Impact pathway is a process that starts with resources used in research. With the resources certain (research) activities are performed and these lead to various outputs such as publications, test results, new algorithms etc. When the outputs are taken into use by others, they create short-term changes, outcomes, for example the uptake of the developed algorithm. These outcomes, when uptaken by the relevant stakeholders, can lead to impact that in the long run can contribute to solving our society’s grand challenges. 

Input / Resources

Human, financial, organisational, community resources available to do research.

Activities

What is being done with the resources? How are the results produced?

Output

The result of activities such as publications, algorithms, education material etc.

Outcome

Short term changes created through outputs. For example citations, using research results in teaching, taking up the developed algorithm for another use etc.

Impact = Changes that occur over a long period of time

Several ways to categorize impact

The main impact categories for research are scientific, societal and economic impact. In addition, impact can be instrumental (influencing e.g. policy making, people's behaviour), conceptual (contributing to the understanding of policy issues), or impact can promote capacity building (e.g. through technical or personal skill development, training for others). 

These are just few categories to mention but there are obviously many other ways research makes impact. Today, not only scientific impact counts but more emphasis is put on productive interactions.  Stakeholder engagement has become an important part of science, and research has become more and more collaborative. 

Impact now

The evaluation of science is based on peer review, and subsequently the number of scientific publications has been decisive in defining impact. However, since the 1990s the demand for measuring economic returns from research funding has increased meaning that scientific impact alone was not enough. For instance, commercialisation of results has become important. In the 2000s new demands for science were presented: it became important that academic research had wider societal impact. 

Currently societal impact of research means that emphasis is put on interactive view in society-science relations, e.g. productive interactions and public engagement in science. It is understood that stakeholder engagement in science is important because impact is not a one-way street. Global challenges require science-based decision-making, and making the wider audience understand the relevance of science is therefore paramount.

Impact in funding applications

Impact has lately become essential in most funding applications. In the Horizon 2020 funding programme (2014-2020) research and innovation project proposals you were expected to tackle a number of expected impacts listed in the work programme.  As we mentioned earlier, impact is a change that occurs within a long period of time, alas most likely not within the usual duration of an average EU-project, which is three years.  

In the Horizon Europe (2021-2027) calls each topic comes with a set of expected outcomes, which are the desired effects of the project in the medium term such as the uptake, diffusion, use and/or deployment of the project’s results by various relevant target groups.  These outcomes will put forward the impacts the commission wants to achieve in the longer term. These desired impacts are listed in the HE Work Programme under the relevant destinations in each cluster and set out in the Key Strategic Orientations of the HE programme. 

Description for impact required

Even though the new HE now speaks about project outcomes, there will be several funders who want you to describe the impact of your research, so you should still think about possible wider effects of your research, such as impact that would enable societal transformations, enhance innovation capacity, create new market opportunities, strengthen competitiveness and growth of companies, address issues related to UN Sustainable Development Goals, climate change or the environment or bring about other remarkable benefits for society.  It is also important to set measurable goals for the impact and define relevant stakeholders and ways to maximise impact

A good thing to keep in mind is that while researchers should be aware of the impact potential, they don't have to be the ones to make everything happen. That is where the stakeholders play an important role.