Rethinking policy impact

Gathering experts across higher education institutions, funding organisations and government for a UK-wide conversation on the principles, goals and approaches that should guide the policy impact agenda in higher education.

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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.

Rethinking Policy Impact report (1MB, PDF)

Promoting Ethical and Effective Policy Engagement in the Higher Education Sector

Six core principles:

  • Collaboration

    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:

  • Resources

    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.

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:

Rethinking Policy Impact literature review (340KB, PDF)


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?

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?

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.

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?

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.

With the support of

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

Sponsored by

  • RSE logo
  • UKRI ESR Council logo
  • Rethinking Policy Practice

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