Making the future: an impact object lesson

Posted by Kristine Pommert

“Consider impact before you dive in”, a recent article in Times Higher Education advised. Well, at the University of Sussex, they did consider impact – and dived right in: last month, they held the first ever Sussex Impact Day, a full day of training, exhibitions and awards for outstanding achievements in research impact.

The day was open to all Sussex researchers and research support staff, and they turned out in sizeable numbers. Bulletin’s contribution, a tailored workshop on Optimising Events for Impact, drew in over 25 participants despite several other attractive offers running in parallel. And, as so often happens in our impact training sessions, it was good to see fundamental misconceptions dispelled.

First and foremost, the idea that public engagement equals impact. Not so: it must be directly underpinned by excellent research, and – crucially – it needs to bring about a demonstrable change in the audience. There were lively discussions across the most diverse disciplines – from Theoretical Physics to Art History – on how to demonstrate and capture that change, with post-it walls, a “coffee and chat” corner for parents whose children are involved in an event, and selfies of participants holding up signs (“As a result of this event, I will…”) emerging as favourites.

How you go about measuring the change in any given audience is, of course, a matter of horses for courses; what they are most likely to respond to needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Yet for any researcher thinking of staging a public engagement event, one principle holds true: before you begin, consider what your objective for the event is. How will it enhance your impact? Is it “fit for purpose”, or would a different way of engaging with your potential research beneficiaries be more impact-ful?

“My view of what impact is and how to go about capturing it has been transformed”, was one delegate’s verdict after our workshop. And from the buzz that was still lively at the end of the afternoon, I was left with the impression that the Sussex Impact Day as a whole had had a similar effect on many of those attending. A timely reminder that even with the next REF still a fairly safe distance away, creating impact out of research is fundamental – for attracting grant funding, but also, as Michael Davies, Sussex’s Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research, put it, for the “fundamental value of creating positive change for specific beneficiaries and for the common good”.

A day well spent, then, for the Sussex research teams – and an idea to emulate, perhaps, for other universities that want to bring the best impacts out of their research; or, as Michael Davies put it, who want to “make the future”.

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