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Understanding research impact

  • Achieving research impact is necessary if we are to improve child health. But what exactly is research impact? Can you plan for it? On this page we explore the concept of research impact, and provide a variety of tips, tools and templates to help kick-start your impact efforts.

    Research impact in five videos

    What is research impact?

    Vox pop: What does research impact mean to you?

    Why is research impact important?

    Research impact - what works?

    Is research impact just about assessment?

    What is research impact?

    The research landscape has changed in recent years, with a growing international emphasis on the measurable contribution research makes to health, the economy and society. Increasingly, governments, funding bodies and philanthropic groups are seeking ways to capture and assess the value and socio-economic return on research investment.

    More than ever before, researchers are being asked to plan for, measure and describe the impact their research has had, and is likely to have in the future. As a health and medical research community, we are continually on the lookout for new and innovative ways to optimise the impact of our research. Ultimately, achieving research impact involves doing what we can to ensure our research makes a difference.

    Definitions of research impact

    While research impact can mean different things to different people, there are some relevant definitions in health and medical research that we can begin to use as a map and compass to navigate the impact landscape.

    The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) defines research impact as:

    the verifiable outcomes that research makes to knowledge, health, the economy and/or society. Impact is the effect of the research after it has been adopted, adapted for use, or used to inform further research.

    The Australian Research Council (ARC) defines research impact as:

         the contribution that research makes to the economy, society, environment or culture, beyond the contribution to academic research.

    Note that the ARC definition of research impact excludes benefits within academia.

    These definitions invite us to shift our focus from our research outputs (e.g., journal articles, conference papers, reports) to the measurable effects, changes or benefits of our research findings. While outputs and bibliometrics are foundational aspects of our research processes and system, they don't tell us about the impact of our research.

    What about knowledge translation?

    Knowledge translation is a dynamic and iterative process that involves:

    the synthesis, exchange, and application of knowledge by relevant stakeholders to accelerate the benefits of global and local innovation in strengthening health systems and improving people’s health [1].

    Knowledge translation refers to the processes involved in raising awareness of knowledge and facilitating its use. It addresses the gap between what we know and what we do to inform decision-making, behaviour, policy and practice. When we talk about “planning for impact” and “impact activities” we are often referring to processes synonymous with knowledge translation.

    A helpful formula to keep in mind is this: research impact (usually) arises from effective knowledge translation.

    [1] World Health Organization. (2006). Bridging the “know-do” gap meeting on knowledge translation in global health. Geneva: World Health Organization.

    Why is research impact important?

    Achieving research impact is central to increasing understanding and improving health and wellbeing – and the health system. Driving the focus on research impact is a desire to maximise the benefits from investments in research, and enhance the quality of research by improving:

    • acceleration: the speed and efficiency of the application of research findings
    • accessibility: the ability of various people to access research findings, and to understand them when they do
    • advocacy: amplifying and demonstrating the value of research to the public and other key stakeholders
    • accountability: demonstrating responsible, ethical and effective use of research funding
    • allocation: enabling progress toward impact to be monitored and inform the future allocation of resources (Being able to demonstrate impact can also attract further research investment)
    • analysis: enabling understanding of the reasons for the success or failure of research impact [2][3].

    [2] Leone. V, Modica. L, West. S (2017). The Melbourne Children’s Knowledge Translation and Research Impact Project. Final Report: A Framework for Action. The Centre for Community Child Health at The Royal Children’s Hospital and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Parkville, Victoria.

    [3] Guthrie, S., Wamae, W., Diepeveen, S., Wooding, S., & Grant, J. (2013). Measuring research. A guide to research evaluation frameworks and tools. Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation. 

    As a health and medical research community, a focus on impact is fundamental if we are to address these known deficits:

    What does research impact look like?

    The beneficial consequences of research are extraordinarily varied, and there are many different pathways to creating impact.

    Types of research impact

    Most definitions of research impact describe impact domains, or types of impact. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) outlines four broad types of research impact: knowledge impact, health impact, economic impact and societal impact.

    Knowledge impact

    Knowledge impact includes new knowledge, demonstrating the benefits emerging from adoption, adaption or use of new knowledge to inform further research, and/or understanding of what is effective.

    Health impact

    Health impact includes improvements in health through new therapeutics, diagnostics, disease prevention or changes in behaviour; or improvements in diagnosis and treatment, management of health problems, health policy, health systems, and quality of life.

    Economic impact

    Economic impact includes reducing health care costs, improving health system efficiencies or improving economic performance through creation of new products, jobs or industries.

    Social impact

    Social impact includes improvements in the health of society, including the wellbeing of the end user and the community. This may include improved ability to access health care services, or to participate socially and/or in decision-making.

    Another taxonomy of impact in health and medical research

    The Canadian Academy of Health Sciences provides a taxonomy of impact similar to the NHMRC definition, but breaks things down further:

    • Advancing knowledge: including measures of research quality, activity, outreach and structure - what was discovered and what unique or innovative methodologies enabled those discoveries?
    • Research capacity building: developing researchers and research infrastructure so that we have the right skills and tools to do the job brilliantly and to do impactful research.
    • Informing decision-making: decisions about health and healthcare, including public health and social care, decisions about future research investment, and decisions by the public.
    • Improving health: including health outcomes and determinants of health, and health system changes.

    And economic and social benefits.

    Whether we are a student, a researcher, a health professional, or whether we support or run health or research programs, all of us will likely see our efforts contributing to one or more of these impact areas.

    A note on impact assessment

    Much of the discourse on research impact is assessment driven. It focuses on rigorously measuring and describing the impact of the research once that impact has occurred. While that is an important part of the impact conversation, we are equally concerned with the different processes, structures, planning, activities, and support that enable and provide the evidence-based foundations for achieving greater research impact. Our approach to research impact is very interested in understanding and amplifying what makes research impactful – not merely assessing impact.

    How to plan for research impact

    There is no template to achieving research impact. When it comes to knowledge translation, implementation, improvement and impact in health, we're dealing with complex practices that take place in complex systems and that require skill and situational judgment, which comes with experience, and which comes from sharing and learning from one another, as well as the evidence about what works.

    That said, planning for impact makes it more likely your research will make a difference. Planning for impact before a project begins, or at the beginning of a research project, is not essential for impact to occur, but is incredibly helpful in supporting researchers to undertake impactful activities and implement measures to identify the type, significance and reach of their impact.

    Developing a research impact plan

    Planning for research impact takes time, but is well worth the effort.

    We recommend a seven-step process:

    1. Know why you’re doing the research, and begin with the end in mind. Ask yourself the following questions: What am I trying to achieve? For whom? Why? What will success look like? What can I achieve, with my resources and in my context? We have developed an impact planning template to guide your thinking during the first stage of the impact planning process.
    2. Now it’s time to get more specific. Use program logic to map your pathway to impact. Program logic helps us explain how an initiative is thought to work and its intended benefits. It is typically displayed in a diagram that shows the relationships between components such as inputs, resources, activities and the expected outputs and effects of research, projects or programs.
    3. Identify, understand and prioritise your key stakeholders, consumers and research users, and devise ways to engage and involve them in your work – and from the very beginning.
    4. Identify and apply relevant knowledge translation, implementation, improvement and impact theories and frameworks that will help to move you along your impact pathway. A rich evidence base exists to guide us in this work.
    5. Develop a communication and dissemination plan, and share research findings in ways that are useful and usable. Rely on engagement with your key audiences to inform your communication and dissemination efforts.
    6. Identify ways to assess and share your impact, and embed learning and reflection in the process.
    7. Draw on your supports – especially the community of staff and students interested in impact in our Knowledge Translation and Impact Network, and use our tools and resources.

    Your research impact plan is dynamic, and will likely change over the course of your project – we recommend reviewing and updating it at least every quarter.

    Please direct questions or feedback to

    Resources – Understanding and planning for research impact

    Impact planning template

    Impact planning template

    MC Impact Planning Template Our Melbourne Children's Impact Planning Template is a tool to help you conceptualise your research impact. We suggest you begin here.

    The template will guide your thinking on:

    • the research problem
    • your intended impact
    • who you need to involve
    • the activities you will need to undertake
    • what you will produce
    • how you might evaluate your efforts
    • who on the team needs to do what, and when, to get things moving.

    Impact Planning Template with guidance (PDF)

    Further reading and resources


    Melbourne Children’s Knowledge Translation and Research Impact project The four publications on this page discuss knowledge translation and research impact, describe the changing research policy and funding landscape and outline needs and recommendations for progressing KT and impact at Melbourne Children’s.


    Fast Track Impact A UK-based website established by Professor Mark Reed that contains a range of articles and tools for planning, measuring and “fast tracking” research impact.


    Research Impact Canada Toolkit A diverse range of impact planning and measurement tools and engagement resources, curated by Research Impact Canada.


    Implementation Science Resource Hub A range of information, tools and links to further research on implementation science and implementation research from the University of Washington.


    Research impact: A narrative review A 2016 academic article from Professor Trisha Greenhalgh and colleagues that provides an overview of several well-established research impact frameworks and discusses strengths, limitations and future directions of a focus on research impact.


    Lost in knowledge translation: Time for a map?

    A seminal 2006 article from Professor Ian Graham and colleagues that introduces the knowledge to action cycle.


    Guide to Knowledge Translation Planning A planning guide from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research that contains an introduction to knowledge translation, and planning approaches for integrated and end-of-grant knowledge translation.


    Real Impact:Impact Literacy workbook A high-level impact planning template produced by Dr David Phipps and Dr Julie Bayley.


    Knowledge Translation Planner A tool to guide your knowledge translation planning from Health Canada.


    LSE impact blog A well-updated research impact blog from the London School of Economics and Political Science that contains a range of articles summarising research and discussing issues relating to research impact.


    How CSIRO ensures it delivers impact An overview of the CSIRO approach to research impact.

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Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

The Centre for Community Child Health is a department of The Royal Children’s Hospital and a research group of Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.