Communicating effectively about your research across all project stages gives your work the best chance of having the kind of impact you’d like it to. It’s not only important for when you have findings that you want to get out there, but also throughout the whole process - from working up a project idea, building the team, getting the funding and then actually doing the work.
Over the last few years we’ve seen much greater emphasis being placed on ensuring that our research has impact and to my mind, effective and proactive communication really underpins this. Focusing especially on impact outside of the research community, all research funders are keen to see their investment leading to some tangible change. What will be the practical benefit of your work? How could it improve things for patients or health care professionals? How could it help the health system work more effectively?
The Health Foundation’s new communications toolkit for research helps researchers to increase the influence and impact of their findings in health and health care. It includes guidance, templates, support materials and links to help develop a communication strategy, package findings for different audiences and engage stakeholders to extend influence and widen impact.
Funders of all shapes and sizes, whether it be the National Institute of Health Research, one of the members of Research Councils UK, or an independent charity like the Health Foundation, are increasingly keen that you set out the potential impact of your work right up front.
Having sat on funding panels myself, I’ve found it’s easy to spot vague promises of impact that don’t include any tangible stakeholder engagement activity. Applicants often seem to operate with a rather ‘black box’ mind set – they will generate the knowledge and then through some mysterious mechanism it will be taken up and implemented. The Health Foundation’s new toolkit helps researchers to build a comprehensive comms plan, ensuring that you think about what activities and resources are required to achieve the desired impact for your research.
Communicating work from the very early stages and throughout your research is vital to ensuring that you’re tackling a question that’s important and relevant, as well as engaging the right kinds of audiences up front. This isn’t to say that these audiences then drive your research agenda, but engaging with them and understanding their priorities and concerns can stand you in good stead. To this end, the new online toolkit contains tips and guidance to help researchers identify and engage key audiences from the start. It’s always better to have people waiting with bated breath for your findings, than it is to be trying to get them interested from cold!
Speaking as a university-based researcher, I’m also very mindful of the impact agenda within the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – the system for assessing the quality of research in UK universities and higher education colleges, which informs the allocation of funding for research. Impact was introduced for REF in 2014 as a new element in assessing UK research. While the final details for REF2021 are yet to be finalised, it seems likely that impact will remain at least as prominent if not more so.
We’re all looking for our research to have wider impact, but this isn’t necessarily a very easy thing to achieve. For many researchers, it’s still somewhat unchartered territory, and even those who are more experienced,might still be able to improve how they go about ensuring impact.
The Health Foundation’s communications toolkit for research is a really helpful resource in this area. If you’re new to this kind of thing, it offers an invaluable framework and signposts plenty of tools and techniques. For those who are more experienced, it may help you to reflect and potentially expand on what you already do.
So, whether you’re new to doing this kind of thing or consider yourself an old hand, I encourage you to take a look at this useful new resource and see what you can learn from it. Surely you and your research can never have too much impact?
Natalie is a Professor of Healthcare Improvement Research at the University of Leicester.