Thinking creative impact in research

Yesterday we spent the day discussing and thinking about what research impact is and how to do it at the ESRC funded conference ‘Making a Difference: Impact in the Social Sciences’ at Oxford University. It was inspiring to see so many academics embrace impact because they believe in research as a public good and a tool for social justice and positive change. Some successfully influenced policy-change, others aimed their research findings at practitioners as was the case in Dr Shona Minson’s research on the consideration of the child’s best interested in the sentencing of mothers and others again aimed their impact work at the general public as was the case in a project on abortion and stigma.

The forms of engagement and impact were also impressively broad and depended a lot on the intended audience. These included embracing different styles of writing such as short policy briefings of key findings relevant to policy makers and stakeholders, short films available online or travelling exhibitions to give just a few examples.

What became clear was that all successful impact work, especially the more creative type, required the collaboration of experts in the area of the creative arts to help with the vision, conceptualisation and translation of research into other modes of communication, as well as its realisation. The better thought through and resources the engagement or impact work was, the more successful it was at reaching its intended audience and making a difference.

While there were healthy critical debates on the current “impact” agenda as it is being pushed by the REF (Research Excellence Framework) and other measurement criteria, the general consensus seemed to be that engaging the public in research and making a difference was part of the academic’s role. This sentiment was encapsulated in Dr Julie Bayley’s opening plenary when she asked the audience “What would you do, if you weren’t being measured?” And many had been doing this kind of work for many years. As Aileen – the organiser- said in her opening talk ‘we are all impact mad here. This was also the day’s hashtag on twitter – #impactMAD – check it out for more interesting discussion!

In our own session we discussed some lessons from our own now three years of practice working on public engagement and impact projects with academics through the mode of theatre and other creative methods. We’ve been developing the scope of our work, creating bespoke and unique packages of work to fit with the researcher’s aims and objectives. It always includes a theatrical element, either in the form of a script that is rehearsed or through the creation of bespoke drama activities that are based on the research.

Together with Will Allen we discussed how we turned his research on media information and perception based on quantitative analyses and outputs in the form of charts, graphs and words into activities for the curiosity carnival.


We also shared some of our key guiding principles:

  1. Don’t assume anyone will be interested in your research
  2. It’s not about you, the researcher
  3. Be clear on whyyou are doing this; how you are doing it; and who your target audience is
  4. Adapt to your audience, in terms of age, background, prior-knowledge of the topic and so on
  5. Respect your audience as experts of their own lives and equals in the discussion
  6. Make it relevant to who you are trying to engage
  7. Don’t underestimate the time and resources it takes!

And finally we made some researchers a bit uncomfortable by making them do some activities – not something most of us are used to as part of academic conferences! Going by the feedback on twitter this was a successful move however!


We had a great time talking to researchers and others about how and why they do impact and public engagement. Thanks to the conference organisers for organising such a worthwhile event!


By: Vanessa Hughes

Thinking creative impact in research

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