Impact and RSE career development

Kirsty Pringle1,2 and Mihaela Duta3

What is Research Impact?

Impact is a bit of a buzz word in research at the moment, but what does it mean?

At its simplest, research impact refers to the effect that research has outside of academia. Impact can take many forms: it could be a positive effect on society, the economy or the environment; it could be the development of new laws or policy changes that are informed by the research; or it could even be technical developments that have occurred as a result of the research.

What isn’t Impact?

Impact isn’t something a researcher can ‘do’, rather it is a change that results from the work of the researcher.  Publishing an academic paper isn’t impact (although it could later result in impact), neither is giving evidence to a select committee, working with a business, or contributing to an exhibition in a museum.  These activities might, however, result in impact if the people or organisations involved somehow change their behaviour or understanding as a result.  It might seem pedantic to make a distinction between the action (not impact) and its effect (impact), but it is an important distinction to make in order to assess the effect that research has outside of academia.

Pathways to Impact

Both funding bodies and the public, are increasingly expecting academics to demonstrate from the onset how their research will be beneficial to society.   All UKRI funding bodies now require grant applications to include a “Pathways to Impact” section detailing both the potential for impact and a clear plan for achieving it.

How can mpact be measured?   Unlike other research outputs (e.g. number of published articles) there are no simple metrics for research impact: not only can the beneficial effects of research outside of academia be very diverse and multifaceted, but it is often hard to tie them to the actual research itself.  The Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise in 2014 was the first to assess the effect of research outside of academia at large scale. UK higher education institutions (HEIs) submitted over 6,000 Impact Case Studies to demonstrate the impact of their research.  The 2021 REF exercise further prioritises impact, which places impact right at the core of many University research strategies.

Impact and Research Software Engineering

This prioritisation of research impact offers exciting opportunities for research software engineers (RSEs), who are often critical for the translation of a research output into impact, to gain more recognition and visibility for that research, and subsequently to lobby for more career opportunities and access to additional funding routes. However, just as for the metrics for research impact itself, the metrics for the RSE role in research impact are not at all straightforward and one might argue that the discussion on what those might be has not even started yet.

In this panel discussion we will address the potential of RSE for realising research impact, and outline how such a move could enhance the careers of those working as RSEs.

Conference Panel

Louise Brown

Dr Louise Brown is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. She currently holds an EPSRC RSE Fellowship on Software for Textile Modelling and Simulation to explore the challenges of modelling the increasingly complex textile structures used in composite materials, and examine how computer simulations can predict their behaviour, both during manufacture and in service.

Paul Richmond

Dr Richmond is research-focused RSE and RSE group leader at the University of Sheffield.  He also holds an EPSRC RSE Fellowship to facilitate the use of accelerated architectures such as Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) to accelerate scientific discovery. He is developing software techniques, a provision of skills and training material and building a community to help drive the use of accelerators into mainstream science and engineering.

David Gavaghan

Prof. Gavaghan is a professor of computational biology at the University of Oxford, and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Software Sustainability Institute. He has a long-standing interest in the development of open source research software, and has recently helped to establish an RSE group in Oxford.

Author affiliations

1: N8 CIR: Centre of Excellence in Computationally Intensive Research across the N8.

2: Centre for Environmental Modelling and Computation (CEMAC), University of Leeds

3: University of Oxford