What is impact?

What is impact?

'Research impact' refers to the effects of research beyond academia. 

It is part of a broader conversation about the many ways in which scholarship benefits society.

In recent decades impact has increasingly become part of how funders make the case for supporting future research funding. In these contexts the term has some quite specific definitions.

Key things to know

Impact: key things to know

  • Impact refers to change beyond academia.

  • Impact refers to change arising from research (the link to research is key).

  • Impact is understood very broadly. Enriching cultural life, challenging stereotypes, informing or stimulating public debate or increasing public understanding are all examples of potential impact. 

  • Routes to impact, and types of impact, are extremely diverse; impact will mean different things for each project or body of research.

  • There is a difference between impact (a change) and impact activities (which might lead to change).

  • Impact activities do not have to be carried out by the person who conducted the research.

  • Feedback and evaluation are needed to understand if and how research has had an impact. 'Impact' suggests a unidirectional flow of force; ideally, it is more about exchange rather than dissemination, a dialogue rather than a monologue.

  • Impact is not a catch-all term for all activities with external groups; there is much public engagement, outreach and access work which universities undertake with external groups that is not based upon specific research (but which might, for example, be based around a discipline more generally).

  • Impact, like research, involves risk, unpredictability, creativity, and serendipity. But there are things that can be done to increase the chances of work reaching beyond the academy. The specifics vary from project to project, but begin with the key question: who might be interested in the research and why? 

  • There is expertise and support available within the University to assist with research impact.

Funder definitions of impact

Funder definitions of impact

The short version:

  • change
  • beyond academia
  • with a clear link to research
  • that can be evidenced

Definitions of research impact vary. (The HRC Research Support Team can advise on how to align your impact plans with funder requirements).

The most influential definitions of research impact in UK Higher Education come from the UKRI (which encompasses both the Research Councils and Research England, which runs the REF exercise).

UKRI and impact

UKRI no longer posits a single definition of impact, but it categorises impact as both economic; and social/cultural. Its former definition of impact as "The demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy" in effect still applies, but is now described in more detail. These economic and societal/cultural impacts embrace all the extremely diverse ways in which research-related knowledge and skills benefit individuals, organisations and nations by:

  • fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom,
  • increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy,
  • enhancing quality of life, health and creative output.

More on impact in research funding applications

Definition of REF Impact

In 2014, the REF (then run by HEFCE) measured impact through case studies for the first time, defining research impact as:

An effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.

It further went on to stress that impact includes, but is not limited to, an effect on, change or benefit to:

  • the activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding
  • of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals
  • in any geographic location whether locally, regioinally, nationally or internationally.

Impact includes the reduction or prevention of harm, risk, cost or other negative effects

Read Research England's information about impact in REF 2014

Read about impact in REF 2021

Impact of Arts and Humanities research

Impact of Arts and Humanities research

Understandings of research impact are extremely broad.

Some types of impact can be easier to identify and describe than others. For example, economic impact, policy impact, or impacts on health or the environment.

Social and cultural impact

The US arts organisation, Animating Democracy, has produced a useful resource for articulating social, civic and cultural impact, summarised in this infographic.

Arts and humanities research often has social and cultural impacts which can be less easy to articulate.

Impact can include:

  • illuminating and challenging cultural values and social assumptions
  • enriching the lives, imaginations and sensibilities of individuals and groups
  • enhancing public understanding
  • informing or influencing public debate
  • influencing creative practice
  • preserving, conserving and presenting cultural heritage
  • contributing to processes of commemoration, memoralisation and reconciliation
  • influencing the methods, ideas or ethics or any profession
  • contributing to widening public access to and participation in the political process.

Each case of impact is unique to the research it stems from and therefore, like research, impact is very varied. There is no complete list of types of impact, just examples and starting points.

See further examples of potential arts and humanities research impact from the REF2014 guidance notes.

Contact us

Helen Jones
Faculty Impact Manager


Natalie Fullwood
Faculty Impact Manager


Lucy Cheseldine
Faculty Impact Administrator