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Plan your pathway to impact


Impact is defined as the demonstrable contribution that research makes to society and the economy, of benefit to individuals, organisations and nations.

Generating impact from research is highly context dependent, takes time, involves serendipity, and, often, comprises a series of small incremental changes carried out collaboratively.

However, ‘impact’ is the term for the outcome not the process itself. This is better described as knowledge mobilisation. Knowledge mobilisation is about sharing knowledge between different communities to catalyse change. It is made up of processes and activities like engagement, dissemination, co-design and commercialisation.

We've identified the five most common mistakes made by researchers in the dissemination and engagement plans for their applications for NIHR funding. Read about how to counter the five most common mistakes in dissemination and engagement plans.

Engaging with research users

Generating meaningful research impact requires engaging with the people who are likely to use the research. This engagement is usually through conversations from the very beginning of the research project, even before the design stage.

We encourage all applicants for NIHR funding to prospectively (and realistically) consider how to engage with and involve research users at every stage of the research process, considering how users might benefit from the research.

As well as patients, carers and members of the public, research users may include commissioners, voluntary sector professionals, managers, clinicians of various backgrounds and anyone else who is crucial if the intended change is to happen within practice, policymaking, third sector or private sector organisations.

Planning your pathway to impact

Engaging with research users and identifying potential impacts from the outset will help you to plan processes by which your research may directly or indirectly catalyse change. Planning includes considering the kinds of impact you are hoping to achieve; that is, what might change, for whom, to what extent, and when. 

Researchers who apply for funding from NIHR research programmes are expected to include an engagement and impact plan in their application. This plan should outline how you will engage with research users to deliver impact from your research.

NIHR-funded researchers are also expected to report the outputs, outcomes and the impacts of their research to the NIHR through Researchfish.

Have a look at our examples of high quality engagement and impact plans from recently funded NIHR research applications:

Advice on how to plan your pathway to impact


Engage with research users

Know your research users: understand their key interests, perspectives, needs and expectations - know what motivates them. Understand the timescales they are working to. Recognise that different people may have different needs.

Get the right people with the right networks, knowledge and experience on board, preferably with at least two as co-applicants.

Engage with research users at the planning stage and keep them involved throughout the project and beyond.

Resource the input of research users properly within the application, with enough time and money.


Form partnerships

Find and cultivate people to be ‘champions’ for your research within the organisations that need to make the change, seeking out individuals with the right level of influence.

Link with established networks to raise the profile of your research.

Work with voluntary and third sector organisations, because they often have powerful connections with policymakers, service users and carers.

Use existing forums, groups, meetings and events to exchange knowledge, raise awareness and get feedback on your research early and as your research progresses.


Consider context

Understand the cultural, financial, service and policy context of your research.

Identify and cultivate contexts where there is demand for change, with the right people and conditions to act on your research.

Ensure that your research is fit for purpose within those contexts.


Tailor materials 

Consider a range of tailored outputs for managers, patients and carers, practitioners, industry, researchers, clinicians, and the public, as appropriate. 

If you’re producing written materials, use plain English.

Use interactive types of output and approach, as well as the traditional dissemination of reports, lay summaries, and academic papers.

Consider stories, social media and illustrations. Be creative!


Tailor approach

Consider how best to reach and influence your target audiences through networks, educational events, audit and feedback, embedding research findings into IT systems, theatre etc.

Use more than one method of engagement.

Try to reach more than one audience.

Read our guidance on costing for these types of knowledge mobilisation activities.


Optimise timing

Consider what can be shared before the end of the study to maintain engagement and whet appetites for the final results.

Take advantage of serendipity, because opportunities that lead to impact are often unexpected and unplanned.

Toolkits for your plan

NIHR has developed an interactive dashboard that summarises and signposts to a range of tools and other practical resources available to support research impact planning, delivery and assessment. If you have an NIHR Learn account you can access the Impact Toolkit on NIHR Learn; if you don't you can access the Impact Toolkit on NIHR Open Learn.

Some key toolkits available to help you devise an engagement and impact plan include:

Hear from our researchers

We've spoken to three NIHR-funded researchers about how they successfully generated meaningful research impact.

Packing an emotional punch

Dr Ruth Riley developed a performance art piece to share the stories of doctors interviewed for her NIHR-funded research on doctors’ mental health, as a novel way to raise awareness of mental health issues and create impact from her research.

Read a case study on Dr Riley's research

Keep going!

Dr Willie Hamilton used a number of different methods to share the findings from his NIHR-funded research and worked hard to make the connections to get the cancer risk assessment tools he developed into practice.

Read a case study on Dr Hamilton's research

Stepping away from the desk

Inspired by her network of users and carers, Dr Katie Featherstone undertook a wide range of engagement activities to ensure her research on care for people with dementia in hospital would influence policymakers, practitioners and managers.

Read a case study on Dr Featherston's research