Engaging policy audiences

Want an impact? Tell a good story

By 12/11/2015

We’re yet to find a truly effective way of explaining the often complex and unpredictable routes by which research activity leads to real-world change. I wanted to tell you about one of our projects which drew on the traditional power of stories to illustrate the impact of UK development research (and in the process quadrupled the number of visits to our website).

There can be handsome rewards for achieving great impact from your research, but the rewards are even bigger if you can communicate your impact in an engaging, informative way. Impact competitions have started popping up all over academia: in the Research Councils alone there are ESRC’s Celebrating Impact Awards, BBSRC’s Excellence with Impact and NERC’s Impact Awards.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) – the system which assesses the quality of research across all UK universities – also prioritised impact as one of its assessment categories to decide where it allocated future funding. Cue a mad scramble as academics and universities prepared and submitted almost 7000 case studies.

The UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS) is a group of the 14 major UK funders who all share an interest in research for international development. Our Board were really interested in exploring what we could learn from the REF case studies. They recognised that the case studies offered a rare insight into the full research journey – from inception to impact – with a narrative account of all the fiddly bits in-between.

The goal was to provide information on UK development research in time to help inform key policy decisions – such as briefing new Ministers and supplying material for the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review – and highlight the UK’s contribution to global development, especially around the Sustainable Development Goals.


In May, we produced a rapid analysis covering the “who, what and where?” questions. This drew out some interesting findings, including the most common research topics, beneficiaries and areas of impact. The second part of our work involved selecting and profiling the top 20 stories that show the global impact of UK research.

So how to choose the very best from so many amazing impact case studies? I won’t bore you with the details (methodology nerds can email me for more) but we had a great starting point thanks to the comprehensive database we’d acquired from our initial analysis. Using that, we identified a set of key criteria to use in our short-listing process.

Once we had our top 20, we re-packaged the narratives into shorter, more engaging impact stories. We worked in close collaboration with the relevant researchers and institutions, to not only ensure the stories were accurate but also capture the researcher’s favourite details and any further impact.

We took a lot of inspiration from the excellent impact case studies already in existence, such as DFID’s Stories of Change and Oxford University’s impact case studies. I’m really pleased with the result: an impressive collection of stories which provide a snapshot of the diverse, high-quality impact that UK research has around the world. The beauty of these stories is that, given their range of topics, they also highlight how UK research can make a big contribution to the new Sustainable Development Goals.

And our readers seem to like them too. The collection of stories has been viewed 10,000 times, our average weekly website visits went up nearly 400% and the collection has been profiled by 20 research organisations. On the back of our work, four research funders have asked to explore how they can use the impact stories to help inform their policy decisions.

Our work with the REF impact case studies only represents a brief snapshot of UK development research. We’re currently exploring new ways to raise awareness of how UK research can help to tackle global challenges, especially amongst the UK research base, and would we love to hear from you if you have any ideas.