Academic impact on public policy and practice via knowledge exchange
Lessons from Scottish Universities Insight Institute (SUII) projects
‘Impact’ is any effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia. - REF definition
Following discussion at its Governing Board, in 2016 SUII undertook a project to learn from the experience of the programmes it has sponsored, to better understand how knowledge exchange projects of this type can help contribute to public policy and practice, and inform the future design and delivery of SUII projects. Given the range of existing initiatives around the impact agenda, the project intention was to use the SUII experience to add value to other work in this area, not to ‘reinvent wheels’.
While the focus for the project was on learning from the experience of knowledge exchange projects supported by SUII, it also drew on and add to the wider experience from our member universities and elsewhere. The project was steered by an expert panel drawn from SUII member universities and policy makers and practitioners, which included individuals with experience of specific SUII projects, the SUII Programme Committee, and non-academics, i.e. those from policy and practice who are intended beneficiaries.
Aims and objectives
The primary objective of the project was to improve the contribution that SUII type knowledge exchange projects have on increasing the impact of academic work on policy and practice and associated outcomes. A secondary objective is to help realise the potential that SUII projects can have in the generation of REF impact case studies.
In pursuing these objectives the project aimed to address the following questions :
- What types of impact can be best achieved by SUII type knowledge exchange projects over what time scales? How can the impact and broader lessons best be described, captured and shared to better demonstrate and further increase impact?
- What approaches are likely to be most effective in securing impact from SUII-type knowledge exchange projects?
- What lessons can be learned from SUII projects about the relationship between academia (‘supply’) and policymakers and practitioners (‘demand’) in achieving effective impact in the Scottish context e.g. how important are longer term relationships between academic researchers and policy makers and practitioners, and what sort of relationships are likely to be most effective?
- What lessons can be learned about the environment and culture that is most likely to foster impact and how can it best be developed by SUII and partners?
The initial phase of the project was an online, qualitative survey of participants involved in SUII programmes since 2012. This was followed by a knowledge exchange workshop (aimed at past participants in SUII programmes, other academics, practitioners and professionals from research administration) to consider the results of the survey and to generate evidence and ideas for future work in this area. In order to extend the range of insights from a fuller gamut of parties involved in SUII activities, the findings were subsequently combined with observations gathered through a series of telephone interviews with SUII project participantsWhat is meant by impact, however, is contested and evolving. Moreover, what impact means for the university sector will likely differ from the impacts industry, the third sector, policy-makers, politicians, practitioners and service-users expect
Designing for impact – ‘making a difference’
During discussions with the Expert Panel it became clear that what is meant by impact is contested and evolving. Moreover, what impact means for the university sector will likely differ from the impacts industry, the third sector, policy-makers, politicians, practitioners and service-users expect. It was felt that a more useful approach might be to think about how projects can ‘make a difference’. A key output of the project was a series of questions to guide those considering a SUII project as to how it is designed, delivered and disseminated to make a difference:
We gathered reflections and learning from each of the three phases of the project, which covered aspects such as designing a project, methods of dissemination, building relationships and a number of general lessons for developing a SUII-type project. These findings form the basis for an evolving compendium of lessons which can be updated with new ideas on an ongoing basis, to help inform those designing and delivering projects in the future.