The ‘impact’ agenda is now thoroughly internalised in the core mission of universities. Yet two decades on from the first initiatives to promote impact, there is a pressing need to rethink our approach to how we support policy impact.

The climate crisis and the Covid pandemic have brought science and research centre-stage in public debates and policy-making. Meanwhile, our understanding of what kinds of structures and research-policy relations work best has improved. However, debates on the validity and relevance of different types of knowledge are challenging established understandings of the role of universities as knowledge producers and brokers.

Rethinking Policy Impact explores the purpose, definition, scope and beneficiaries of policy impact, with a view to promoting fresh thinking. Sponsored by the ESRC and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the programme is built around five workshops and a final report that will distil key insights and findings and make proposals on the principles and strategic objectives that should shape how we support impact over the next decade.

Final report – Recommendations

The project’s report ‘Promoting Ethical and Effective Policy Engagement in the Higher Education Sector’ builds on the rich discussions in the workshops and the analysis in the Literature review. It sets out six core principles to guide frameworks for supporting ethical and effective approaches to policy impact. The report then makes a number of recommendations that derive from these principles targeted at three main groups of actors: the REF, other funders, and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). The approach in the report is based on the premise that frameworks deployed by REF and funders, and how these are interpreted by HEIs, are key drivers of behaviour on policy impact. As such, the proposals are designed to operate across the three groups in a mutually reinforcing way.

Promoting Ethical and Effective Policy Engagement in the Higher Education Sector

Six core principles:


Researchers should be incentivised to work collaboratively, rather than encouraged (solely) to get credit for their individual team or institution’s research.

Bodies of knowledge

Researchers should be encouraged to contribute to help build and effectively communicate wider corpora of insights and evidence.

Equality and diversity

There needs to be focused support for those with protected characteristics and at early career stage, to create a level playing field and diversify the research informing policy.

Quality of policy engagement

Policy impact frameworks should reward ‘productive engagement’ and co-creation as ends in themselves.

Public and community engagement

Researchers and HEIs should have incentives to contribute to enriching, informing and broadening the parameters of public debate on policies.

Disruptive research

Support for policy impact should not crowd out or devalue innovative, blue-skies or disruptive research.

Two practical considerations:


Changes to impact frameworks should, where possible, limit the resource burden
on funders and HEIs.

Political communication

Impact frameworks should be designed in a way that evidences and champions the positive societal and economic impact of research.

Download the report:

Rethinking Policy Impact report (1MB, PDF)

Literature review

To capture both the concerns and potentials existing in scholarly literature on the assessment of research impact, this overview document starts by reviewing the challenges associated with the UK’s Impact Agenda. It proceeds by exploring how the use of social media ties in with research dissemination and impact and broader aims of public engagement. Next, it discusses the use of indicators to assess research impact and alternative approaches to the UK’s REF for assessing the impact of research. Finally, it presents the ways forward proposed in the literature looking to improve existing attempts to promote research’s benefit to society.

Download the literature review:

Literature review


Workshop 1 | Concepts, principles and goals

Policy impact is often framed in a narrow way, with the focus on bringing about change in policy outputs or outcomes. This framing excludes a range of important ways in which research can generate shifts in understanding, beliefs and engagement across a wide groups of actors engaged in shaping policy. The aim of the workshop is to explore a number of conceptual and normative issues to frame the discussion: what we mean by policy impact, what the purpose and scope of such activity should be, and who it is for?

There is general support for the principle of policy impact: researchers and Higher Education Institutions should be encouraged to achieve policy impact from their research.
Professor Christina Boswell on the ‘impact agenda’ in higher education first gained currency around a decade ago. And to be honest, a lot of that activity felt quite formulaic and box-ticking.
Professor Claire Dunlop sketches three blind spots of policy impact which learning accounts bring into focus.

Workshop 2 | Types of knowledge

The aim of the workshop was to explore how the increasing demands and calls for diversity and interdisciplinarity are supported and facilitated in research impact, and how the different perspectives of those affected by policy could be captured: are approaches to bringing research into policy sufficiently supportive of interdisciplinarity and diversity? What (good) practice is emerging in bringing citizen/user/lived experiences into policy-making? And do more diverse approaches create tensions with more ‘technocratic’ forms of knowledge?

Are current approaches to impact addressing the demands for interdisciplinary approaches, and do they call for more diversity?
Professor Stephen Reicher reflects on the importance of exchanging knowledge between disciplines in addressing the challenge posed by Covid-19.
Dr Ellen Stewart on why engagement with citizens has the potential to improve research and increase its relevance to policy and practice.
The Universities Policy Engagement Network looks at the challenge of bringing about positive change for equity, diversity and inclusion in academic-policy engagement.
Professor Eleonora Belfiore explores the resistance against the impact agenda within the arts and humanities academic community
Professor Nasar Meer explores policy impact concerning racial equality and the role that ‘epistemologies of ignorance’ may play in policy inequality.

Workshop 3 | Perspectives of policy

There are a plethora of different models and approaches for bringing research and evidence into policy – some driven by government and parliament, others by HEIs, think tanks or other knowledge brokers. What have we learned over the past two decades about what works best? And how far have different models adapted to changes in styles of governance, public attitudes and political mobilisation? The seminar brought together policy actors from different levels of government, as well as from think tanks to explore these issues.

Professor Sir Geoff Mulgan lays out six observations on learning about the conditions for effective use of evidence
Professor Dan Wincott provokes further debate on territorial policy impact. The UK governs territory through complex political institutions and systems.
Jill Rutter on how, in a non-rational world, can research impact policy? When most policies are unable to follow the ‘rational’ ROAMEF cycle.
Dr Audrey MacDougall, Chief Social Researcher, reflects on why the issue of research and evidence in policy so problematic.
Professor Jim Gallagher FRSE outlines his thoughts on what it means for academic engagement in policy when politics and polity are in flux.
Dr John Boswell and Dr Jess Smith consider the perspectives of leaders in the executive branch, whose priorities, and processes ‘set the tone’ for the actors in policy work.

Workshop 4 | The international context

Much of the debate on policy impact faces on UK policy and HEI. What can we learn from international experiences of scientific advisory systems in other governments and international organisations? And how do higher education systems outside of the UK incentivise and reward policy engagement and impact through funding and policy?

Professor Alis Oancea introduces the idea of research-impact nexuses to capture the ‘hard-to-assess domains’ of research impact.
Professor Diane Stone looks at the various forms of engagement of HEIs in transnational governance and the challenge of demonstrating impact.
Dr Will McDowall looks at different scientific advisory systems in a comparative perspective to highlight how different governments draw on expertise and evidence.

Workshop 5 | Supporting policy impact in HEI

This workshop took place end of June 2022. Participants discussed findings/insights from the previous workshops to explore the implications for promoting policy impact. It focused on the implications for supporting research and KEI in HEIs and Universities, on the role of funding bodies and the implications for incentivising and funding policy impact. There will be no blogs published from this workshop.

Project Working Group

The project is steered by a Working Group which also includes the secretariat for the project.

Chair, Professor of Politics, Dean of Research, College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, University of Edinburgh
General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Professor of Politics, University of Aberdeen
Bishop Wardlaw Professor, School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Saint Andrews
Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Strathclyde
Professor of Rural Society and Policy and Director of Programmes at the Royal Society of Edinburgh
Professor of Public Health Policy, University of Strathclyde
Professor Daniel Wincott, Blackwell Professor of Law and Society, Cardiff University

With the support of

Research Associate for Rethinking Policy Impact
SAHA Policy and Communications Officer
Research Assistant Rethinking Policy Impact and PhD Candidate, University of Edinburgh

Reference Group members

The light-touch Reference Group ensures key experts and stakeholders can feed into the project and the final report.

  • Annette Boaz, ESRC Areas of Research Interest Fellow, Professor London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
  • Louis Coiffait-Gunn, Senior Policy Adviser, Open Innovation Team, UK government
  • James Canton, Deputy Director Public Policy and Engagement, ESRC
  • Sarah Chaytor, CAPE and Co-founder of UPEN, UCL Director of Research Strategy
  • Matt Flinders, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, Chair of UPEN
  • Sarah Foxen, Knowledge Exchange Lead, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, UK Parliament
  • Audrey McDougall, Chief Social Researcher, Scottish Government
  • Nasar Meer, Professor, Personal Chair of Race, Identity and Citizenship, University of Edinburgh
  • Jane Millar, Chair of REF Main Panel C, Professor of Social Policy, University of Bath
  • Molly Morgan-Jones, British Academy, Director of Policy
  • Huw Morris, Director of Skills, HE and Lifelong Learning, Welsh Government
  • Geoff Mulgan, Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation, University College London, Engagement Lead and Co-Investigator of the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO)
  • Kayleigh Renberg-Fawcett, CAPE Coordinator and Co-chair of the UPEN EDI sub-committee
  • Jill Rutter, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government and Senior Research Fellow of UK in a Changing Europe
  • Stuart Wainwright, Director GO-Science, UK Government
  • Karen Watt, Chief Executive, Scottish Funding Council
  • James Wilsdon, Digital Science Professor of Research Policy, Director, of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI), University of Sheffield
  • James Wilson, Professor of Philosophy, University College London


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