Rethinking Policy Impact Project publishes its final report with recommendations for REF, other funders and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

The Rethinking Policy Impact project aimed to catalyse debate and consider fresh approaches to supporting policy impact in UK Higher Education (HE). Supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), the project ran from February – July 2022. It was galvanised by the pressing need to update how we define, support and reward the policy impacts flowing from research and the underpinning engagement to support these impacts.

Rethinking Policy Impact

A UK-wide conversation on the principles, goals and approaches that should guide the policy impact agenda in higher education.

Find out more about the Rethinking Policy Impact project

The idea that research can and should have policy ‘impact’ is widely accepted, and indeed now thoroughly internalised in the core mission of UK universities. Furthermore, frameworks for supporting policy impact have generally had a positive effect in galvanising greater engagement between research and policy. However, they have also produced a number of unwanted effects, which are documented in the project’s literature review.

Across five thematic workshops, the project explored how to rethink the UK approach to policy impact, two decades on from the first debates about incentivising and rewarding the impact of research.

The project’s report Promoting Ethical and Effective Policy Engagement in the Higher Education Sector (1MB, PDF) builds on the rich discussions and analysis. It sets out six core principles to guide frameworks for supporting policy impact and 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.

In addition, a literature review (340KB, PDF) was commissioned, setting out key findings on theories and concepts of policy impact, and the effects of the ‘impact agenda’ on research and policy.

A woman smiling for the camera
Professor Christina Boswell FRSE

It is now second nature for researchers to engage with policy-makers to help inform and guide policy. But too often, frameworks for supporting impact inadvertently foster individualistic behaviour, with researchers and universities encouraged to gain credit for ‘their’ impact. We need to ensure that funders, the REF and universities promote, rather than inhibit, collaboration and approaches that build on bodies of knowledge rather than discrete projects. The proposals we set out are designed to work in a mutually reinforcing way across the research community, to cultivate more ethical and effective approaches to policy impact.

Professor Christina Boswell FRSE, Chair, Rethinking Policy Impact:

Research impact is at the core of the RSE’s mission. The report offers a  powerful critique of existing approaches to defining and measuring the  impact of academic research on public policy and offers practical suggestions for improvement. It will be essential reading for all those responsible for evaluating impact, whether in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), in universities or in government.

Professor Michael Keating FRSE, RSE General Secretary:  
Michael Keating wearing glasses and looking at the camera
Professor Michael Keating FRSE