Feedback on 2020-02 Outline Research Project Grant applications: A spotlight on impact

We closed for outline applications to our Research Project grant scheme on the 30th August and received over 100 applications (our greatest number yet for this scheme). We recently let applicants know whether they have been invited to submit a full application and, once again, we received many more applications than we can possibly fund, taking around one third through to the next application stage.

Applications were assessed primarily in terms of:

    • how well they fit within the Trust’s funding remit and how they would be addressing the Trust’s strategic objectives and funding priorities
    • how they would help to expand and/or sustain research capacity in the Trust’s area of focus
    • their ‘pathway to impact’ plan detailing how the project would make a difference to understanding the mechanisms of ageing, treating age-related diseases and improving the lives of older people, and the time-frame in which it would do so.

This blog piece is going to focus on the third of these assessment criteria, as this is an important area for the Trust and one with which applicants often struggle. Please check out my previous blog post for the common characteristics of unsuccessful applications covering the other assessment criteria.

Owing to the competitiveness of the grant scheme, a strong ‘pathway to impact’ plan can mean the difference between getting invited to the second stage and being unsuccessful, even if you have a sound research idea and a strong team.

Although a full impact plan is not expected at outline stage, you should still include a number of key components. A strong impact plan will have clearly articulated impact goals, which are specific, credible and appropriate to the research being proposed. It is also important to have thought about who the research will benefit. For some fundamental science projects, this may only be the academic community, but the majority will involve other stakeholders, for example, policy makers, institutions or the wider public. Also, this isn’t the place to talk about the impact on the research team, as there is a specific question within the application form for how research capacity will be developed and supported.

Please do remember that there’s a difference between “impact” and “dissemination”.  Impact is about making change and/or influencing stakeholders to do something they might otherwise not have done, dissemination is a route to making impact. Examples of impact activities include:

    • engaging stakeholders/beneficiaries/the public
    • influencing policy – contributing to evidence-based policy-making
    • influencing practice  – informing/training practitioners, provision of training guidelines etc.
    • commercialisation/engaging commercial partners.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and applicants are encouraged to be creative and identify the most suitable activities for achieving their specific goals.   Your pathway to impact can still be relatively brief at the outline stage (you will have the opportunity to expand if you are invited to make a full application) but should include some specific examples – enough to give a sense that you have thought about how you will use your work to generate impact. Generic statements alone won’t do this.

Here are some examples of generic impact plans, similar to those we have seen:

“The project would generate a range of high-quality research outputs suitable for publication in high impact journals and would contribute papers at key conferences in the UK and internationally. Working with a reference group throughout the project will mean the findings of the project have an impact on the local community and general public.”

“This research will provide substantial benefit to the career development of the PI. In return, it will enhance his/her research standing in this field and promote the development of the next cohort of scientists in the UK… We will disseminate our findings through timely publication in open access journals and via attendance at conferences/meetings.”

These are not project-specific and give the impression that the impact of the project has not yet been thought-through.

This template by Fast Track Impact provides a useful framework for linking impact goals with activities and stakeholders and is a good exercise to do before writing your impact plan. The diagram below nicely illustrates how different impact activities interconnect and can be used to drive change and generate impact.

Embedding impact throughout the research planning process will help to identify potential impacts early on and allow for the research plan to be tailored to maximise impact. One way of doing this is to develop a research-based Theory of Change. This will help ensure that you are exploring the optimum research questions to deliver your impact objectives and allow for impact activities and evaluation to be included throughout the research project.

Take a look at our tips and resources for researchers and at the Fast Track Impact website for more information on this topic.