Proposal writing advice: Impact - demonstrating the value added by research

Last changed: 03 June 2021

Research funders are increasingly expecting that the research they fund will have an impact and provide a return on their investment. Depending on the funder, the expected impact may be vary from breakthrough knowledge to direct effects on society, for example via economic or technological advances. The potential impact of a proposed project is often an explicit evaluation criterion, so you should describe it as specifically as possible.

Understanding impact

The Cambridge Dictionary defines impact as “a powerful effect that something, especially something new, has on a situation or person”. In the context of external funding, impact encapsulates the legitimate expectation of a return on public (or private) investment or of making a difference in the world outside the lab. What constitutes such a return is, of course, interpreted and labelled differently by funders depending on their mandates and guiding philosophies.

For example, the Swedish Research Council (VR) conceives of impact in terms of significance and scientific novelty, and is interested in knowing “how the project moves forward or innovates the current research frontier”. Formas interprets impact through the lens of societal value or relevance, which is about “how the project in the short or long term can contribute to sustainable development”. For these funders and most others, the impact of a given project is expected to emerge organically, although the type of impact may well be prescribed or relatively predictable. By contrast, the “wider long term effects on society…, the economy and science” that Horizon Europe considers as impacts are defined in advance.

Types, beneficiaries, scope and degree of impact

The impact of a project can be scientific, economic, educational or technological. A project can contribute directly or indirectly to policymaking and it can benefit society as a whole or a specific group (e.g., schoolchildren). Importantly, impact may also encapsulate the possibility of unintended consequences. For example, some digital technologies can improve the quality of life for many but leave some sections of society behind or raise concerns about privacy.

The impact of a project can be relatively small and narrow: for example, a new method can greatly benefit a specific scientific field but has little applicability beyond it. The impact can also be rather broad and large: for example, a particular invention can revolutionise manufacturing processes in different industries simultaneously. Funders often specify, directly or indirectly, the scope and degree they desire. Horizon Europe expresses this in terms of scale (how widespread?) and significance (how important?). The European Research Council (ERC) expresses this in such terms as “ground-breaking” and “high risk/high gain”.

Timeframe

The effects of some projects become apparent even before the project is completed. For example, some publications (and even pre-prints) emerging from research on Covid-19 have arguably had a perceptible impact on public debate and even policies. This is in contrast to the research on messenger-RNA (mRNA) from the late 1980s, which underpins the development of today’s vaccines against the virus (SARS-COV-2) that causes Covid-19. For this type of curiosity-driven research, the impact of a project may become visible after years or decades following completion and typically require many other pieces of the puzzle to fall in place.

Another example is of a project that makes a particular theoretical contribution to the understanding of gender, the relevance of which might become apparent only when a certain social or political context arises. Note that for Horizon Europe, impacts refer to only the long-term effects, whereas the term outcomes is used to describe medium-term effects.

Distilling impact

Some sort of mapping or visualisation can be useful for relating a given piece of research to its potential impacts. Specificity is a key to this exercise but when it comes to fundamental research, foresight is also important to draw up a range of possible scenarios that help illustrate the potential impact. Depending on the context, the mapping can proceed forwards or backwards, as outlined below.

Mapping forwards

The impact of investigator-driven or blue-skies research ranges from the immediate to the long term. Although the short-to-medium term impact might be more obvious, the long-term impact is glimpsed only hazily and is sometimes the outcome of tortuous and unpredictable pathways. A forward-mapping approach is ideal to explore impact in such contexts. This entails beginning from the project’s results and working through a chain of more or less predictable intermediate impacts to speculating about more uncertain, long-term impacts.

The results of a VR or ERC project – say the discovery of a cellular process or mechanism – might break new ground in a given field immediately. Whether and when such discovery underpins a key treatment or medication would depend on other scientific and technical developments and even chance. A timely example is the research on mRNA mentioned above, undertaken by US researcher Katalin Kariko, which is helping us today in our efforts to tackle Covid-19.

Mapping backwards

In applied research or research that is the means towards prescribed ends, there is typically a fair idea of the expected impacts. In Horizon Europe, the expected impacts of destinations – broad societal challenges to be tackled via research and innovation – are defined up front. For example, “sustainable, healthy and inclusive food systems delivering co-benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation…” The expected outcomes for calls under each destination are also listed, e.g., to “enhance capacities to prevent, monitor and (bio)control important plant pests”.

The backward-mapping exercise in such cases would be about working out the intermediate steps that would most effectively connect the project’s immediate results to the call’s expected outcomes as well as the expected impacts for the destination as a whole. The intermediate steps include considerations of dissemination/exploitation of the results and an analysis of the stakeholders or beneficiaries (see below).

Enhancing impact

Identifying the potential impact is just one part of the story for funders such as Formas or Horizon Europe. They also want to know how you will go about achieving or enhancing the impact. Formas proposals often require a communication plan, and Horizon Europe proposals include a section entitled “Measures to maximise impact”. Responding to this requirement entails analysing the most relevant target groups or stakeholders and the most effective forms of engaging with them to ensure the uptake and application of the project’s results.

In recent years, there is a growing emphasis on the co-design and co-production of knowledge, such that the potential beneficiaries of research are either project participants or offer input already during the design of the project. Indeed, the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has found that “more co-productive forms of research (i.e. research undertaken with rather than on people in a collaborative, iterative process of shared learning) offer particular potential for impact academically and socially.”

Please refer to the separate guidance from the Grants Office on communication and dissemination. Detailed tips can also be found on the ESRC website.

Incorporating impact in proposals

Having identified the potential impacts and the ways of achieving/enhancing them, it is then a matter of adapting that information to the requirements of the actual proposal. The guidelines provided by funders regarding the articulation of impact vary from clear and precise to rather general. In what follows, guidance regarding Horizon Europe and other funders is provided separately. This is because Horizon Europe is distinguished by its rather specific understanding of impact and prescriptive guidelines regarding how it is to be articulated.

Horizon Europe

Three impact-related subsections are part of the Horizon Europe proposal template:

  • Project’s pathways towards impact
  • Measures to maximise impact – Dissemination, exploitation and communication
  • Summary

The proposal template provides detailed guidance for completing these sections. The first subsection requires a narrative of how the project’s results would make a difference beyond its duration, with emphasis on the target groups, types of impact, factors that would facilitate or impede impact and the scale and significance of the impact. The second subsection requires a plan for dissemination and exploitation, as well as a strategy for the management of intellectual property that would potentially arise from the project. The summary requires a tabulation of specific needs; expected results; dissemination, exploitation and communication measures; target groups; outcomes; and impacts. The proposal template provides an example of what could constitute each of these categories.

Other funders

Most other funders, including Swedish ones such as VR and Formas, require separate sections and give an indication of the content but do not prescribe any internal structure. VR allows researchers to integrate the impact-related section, “Significance and scientific novelty”, within their research plan, whereas Formas uses a format whereby the aspect of societal relevance and communication with stakeholders is to be dealt with in a separate section (or two sections for some calls). The requirements of other funders, such as Vinnova, vary based on the call and may be general or specific.

ERC does not require a separate impact section, but it is nevertheless advisable to include one on the ground-breaking or high risk/high gain nature of the research. If length (character, word or page limit) is not prescribed, it is usually safe to go with about half a page. If internal structure is not prescribed, the following may be used (it can be adapted to various emphases, e.g., scientific or societal):

Opening paragraph

A brief reminder of the outstanding problem/gap/need that motivates the overall aim of the proposed work. For example, a potentially important biological process is poorly understood or there is a need for resolving a conflict over resources.

Subsequent paragraphs

The content of the following paragraphs is determined by whether the orientation of the funder is primarily fundamental science or applied science.

For open calls from funders that are primarily interested in scientific advance, such as VR, the paragraph following the opening paragraph should discuss the novelty of the proposed work (conceptual, methodological or technological) and the extent to which it will affect theory and practice in related or entirely different fields. For ERC, what makes the project particularly risky (conceptual risk, not risks associated with implementation) can be pointed out while emphasising the potentially substantial gain arising from the project’s success. Any societal or practical implications of the work can then be mentioned in the final paragraph.

For funders that focus on societal or applied aspects, such as Formas, almost all text following the opening paragraph should describe the way in which the project’s outcomes contribute to societal, technological or economic goals relevant to that call. For example, in Formas’s annual open call it is essential to elaborate on the contribution to specific Sustainable Development Goals and other national/international policy processes; to demonstrate that the project itself builds on consultation with relevant stakeholders; and to describe a detailed strategy for communication with such stakeholders and beyond.

Irrespective of the funder, specificity is the key to drafting an effective section on impact. Why and how is an advance ground-breaking? When are the various impacts likely to occur? What else might be needed to realise some of the longer-term impacts? Who are the most relevant stakeholders and how have they been engaged in project design and implementation? How will the communication strategy ensure that the project’s outcomes do lead to the expected impacts? These are the types of questions that need to find answers in this section.

More information and support

Given the diversity of funders and their expectations, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to articulating and communicating the potential impact of research. This diversity renders the relatively general guidance provided here inherently limited, although it should provide some direction to thinking about impact in specific instances. The Grants Office can provide more focused and specific help via its seminars/workshops and hands-on support for prioritised proposals. Feel free to contact us in case of any questions (grantsoffice@slu.se). In addition, departmental or faculty communicators may also be able to provide guidance, and SLU Holding can support with queries related to IP management and exploitation.

Finally, you may also refer to the following links for useful information about impact in grant proposals:

Page editor: lars-erik.lindell@slu.se