Impact Basics 1: The impact cycle

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The impact that your research has on society, academics or economics can be described through an impact cycle. You very likely follow this cycle in one way or another already, maybe without noticing it. If you fully understand the cycle, you will be able to pinpoint where you got stuck, where you can improve and where there is a missed opportunity. And you can also use the impact cycle to better describe your research impact in a funding application.

Impact should ideally be a cycle and therefore there is not a clear start or ending. However, for the sake of explanation, we will lead you through the cycle step by step, in a logical manner.

1. Input

We start with the input into your research. Think about a specific project that you have done. Maybe you created a cohort, or a collaboration with some interdisciplinary researchers to work on a challenge in your field, or you established a scientific society to better exchange with your fellow researchers. Now think about the input you received for this project. For example, did you invest time, money, or had specific collaborations? Did your education, your expertise offer valuable input for this project? Then make sure to mention and explain it. For example, in grant proposals they want to see that you are the best possible person to conduct or lead this project; therefore the input you provide by means of your specific expertise, your interdisciplinary education or your vast network are crucial to mention.

Now think about the results you plan to have or had with your project. These results are also called outputs, and can range from publications, to guidelines, advice papers, software, data, or educational courses that you provided. Only think about the outputs crucial for this project. You have likely produced outputs for other projects, but they may not be relevant here.

2. Outputs

Ideally, your outputs can be translated, or developed into outcomes. Outcomes are your outputs that in some way had a follow-up effect. So, you should take a moment to ask yourself the question: what might/did my outputs change? Whom could they benefit or who will likely translate or implement them? For example, you published a paper and with that new knowledge, guidelines were created, changed or improved. Or you provided a course to students who are now able to work in an interdisciplinary field. Something happened with your outputs likely because you communicated your outputs to the right people (e.g. policy makers to change guidelines). In this process, communication is key as well as the thorough understanding of who is interested in your outputs and why.

3. Outcomes

Your outcomes can eventually have real impact. Impact is something that is impossible to predict or measure, but you can smooth the way to make sure your outcomes will have impact. You can  make sure that you have all the necessary partners in your network to promote and implement the changed guidelines. This could result in real impact, for example in earlier prediction and treatment. Lives will be improved and saved and this could therefore be your intended impact.

4. Intended Impact

Whereas outputs can be measured, and outcomes can be influenced, impact is hard to showcase. Therefore, most impact narratives are told retrospectively. By using the outline of an impact cycle, you can tell your impact cycle retrospectively, but it can also help you at the beginning of a project to plan and check your next steps and describe your intended impact, e.g. in a funding application. It can work both ways, depending on what you need to get out of it.

5. Society

Now I would like to describe the last and most important part of the impact cycle: the returns of impact. Often impact is described as a linear process, thereby forgetting that it has not only to be brought to society, but should also return and feedback into research. You would want to know how the changed guidelines improved the current treatment and whether it can be even further improved or if it has restrictions, or missed opportunities. Therefore, you have to engage with the end-users, such as clinicians using these guidelines. By engaging with the right stakeholders, you could potentially find out what kind of benefit or change your guidelines really had, and how you can further improve.

How to translate your steps from the impact cycle into an impact narrative will be explained in the next post: 'Impact Basics 2: Writing an impact narrative'.