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Should we mourn or celebrate the end of Pathways to Impact?

Photo (cropped): Pathway to the sea. Credit: Trevor Marron/Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0
Feb 2020

The surprise announcement by UKRI that they will be removing the Pathways to Impact from their grant applications has sent the UK research community into a spin. Very few academics are going to miss writing impact pathways statements. They were seen by many as a tick box exercise and the opportunity to promote a deeper reflection on how to engage with non-academic partners and users was all too often squandered.

They were always a bit of a poisoned chalice, given that they continued to privilege quantitative measures of mostly economic impact and sustained the myth of impact arising from single projects and superstar researchers. We have written so many critiques of the impact agenda over the last few years. Too broad, too narrow, too instrumental, too poorly supported. But even so, there is a risk that UKRI may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

For researchers focused on global development, the spread of Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding across Whitehall and Research Councils leading to mega consortiums of Global Challenges Research Fund has significantly raised the impact stakes.

This is particularly challenging for those less familiar with donors like DFID who have ambitious objectives around the policy impact of research. This is not going away just because pathways statements are being scrapped.

We must look at the impact agenda itself. As it stands, the UKRI framework focuses around three types of impact, instrumental, conceptual and capacity building. In reality, it often feels like the latter two are the ugly ducklings when it comes talking about impact, and ‘instrumental’ or ‘policy’ is the swan. So, without the impact statements – will there be more emphasis and space for a more nuanced understanding of impact, or less?

Impact takes time and it takes people

Where these statements provided leverage, was for those of us trying to support researchers and projects. At the ESRC-DFID Impact Initiative, Pathways to Impact statements gave us a starting point from which to try and understand how we could best provide brokerage support to link researchers with relevant policy and practitioner audiences. Admittedly, they were often pretty thin, but they still provided an entry point when we had over 200 projects to work with.

Our work at the portfolio level provides us with a unique perspective of how individual research grants and projects add up to more than the sum of their parts. We even mapped the diverse projects’ approaches to uptake and produced a meta-impact pathway to impact. This Delta of Impact identified some clear ‘stepping stones’ and we begin to see a thread. Impact is rarely ‘instrumental’ in the solitude of a single project – nor is it often a linear process. Cases of policy impact from specific studies are few and far between. And as we have seen in the Impact Initiative where impact is really happening is around stakeholder engagement and networks that support learning.

What we discovered (we are not alone in this discovery) is that impact takes time. It may be several years before the relevance of some research is fully recognised and implemented, or for changes to take place in bureaucratic, social, and economic systems. And yet at the start of many grants, researchers have increasingly been required to develop Pathways to Impact to show what they intend to do during their research to enable impact.

Done well, this is based upon informed thinking and reflection of how research teams can draw upon and strengthen their networks and relationships to develop, share, and promote their research findings. However, for many there has simply not been adequate support available to facilitate this thinking which has led to a fair amount of educated guessing. Perhaps we should not be surprised then that this is seen as another hoop to jump through to access funding or meet reporting requirements.

At the macro level, collective reflection on the different methods and approaches that research projects use to promote uptake and impact is rare and has potential to encourage learning between projects and exchange around impact pathways as useful road maps for research.

A positive legacy for impact statements?

Pathway statements could have a positive legacy if UKRI and other funders recognise impact as being less about single research studies than bodies of knowledge. Research needs to feed into a discourse and provide answers to policy questions or help decision-makers ask the right questions. Underpinning that is the need to build relationships, broker communities and support interdisciplinarity to stimulate meaningful and lasting change.

So, people like us in the business of impact, should not mourn the passing of pathways to impact statements because researchers certainly won’t be. Instead, we need to learn from their problems and build on what they could in the right hands achieve. The community of academics and practitioners who are committed to a UK research agenda that values impact beyond the academy need to fill the void.

There is still so much untapped potential in British scholarship to engage in transdisciplinary partnerships that support economies, combat infectious disease, reduce poverty and inequality and address climate change. Pathways statements were just one blunt tool so let’s sharpen our knives and push on with even more energy than before.

Further resources and useful links:


This opinion piece was originally published as Should we mourn or celebrate the end of Pathways to Impact? by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) on 31 January 2020.

The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


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