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Blog Post

Using the Research Impact Framework as a tool for reflection

by Shirine Voller

published 28 April 2015

Research impact and uptake are in vogue – UK universities are reflecting on how their impact case studies went down in the 2014 REF, an inaugural Research Uptake Symposium was held in Nairobi earlier this year, and many excellent toolkits are available, such as ROMA, that help guide researchers, advocacy and communications professionals to measure the impact of their work, not least to satisfy their funders’ requirements.

We have google analyticsaltmetric.comSprout SocialMail ChimpBit.lyMy top tweet, and any number of other funkily-named applications whose tentacles gather data to tell us how we are doing at changing the world. The rationale underpinning this emphasis on measuring impact is sound: What is the point of doing research, especially in an applied field like public health, if the results aren’t used and it doesn’t benefit anyone?

A light touch tool to capture research impact

In IDEAS, we have engaged with the challenge of measuring research impact by applying the Research Impact Framework[1] (RIF) in conversations with implementation projects working in maternal and newborn health in Ethiopia, Northeast Nigeria and Uttar Pradesh, India. The RIF was developed by researchers, for researchers, to aid reflection on the impacts of their work. It’s a ‘light touch’ tool – we didn’t want to add burden to projects’ already intensive measurement regimes! – but it could be combined with other methods for added rigour. It has four impact categories (research, policy, service and societal) and encourages its users to think broadly about how their work has made a difference.

What research impacts were reported?

What kinds of impacts can implementation projects achieve along the way to their ultimate goal of improving the health and survival of mothers and newborns? © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
What kinds of impacts can implementation projects achieve along the way to their ultimate goal of improving the health and survival of mothers and newborns? © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Projects reported impacts in all four categories. Research impacts included academic articles, conference presentations, reports and policy briefs. Policy impact was shown through pilot interventions being scaled-up by a state or national government, and policy impacts often linked directly to service impacts, for example a policy decision leading to change in health service delivery. Societal impacts were typically described through anecdotes, which would benefit from verification.

Lack of incentive to reflect on research impact

We followed up with projects 12 months after our initial conversations, in an attempt to capture impacts realised more recently, even after a project’s completion. This brought new examples and depth to the work. Sadly, in several cases key contacts had moved on, or new challenges were occupying their attention: We fell foul of the problem of the spotlight having moved forward and insufficient incentive for projects to reflect on the ‘long tail’ of impact.

However, we plan to persevere and return in a year’s time in an attempt to uncover new impacts and contribute to the discussion about impact and how to measure it.

Shirine Voller and Agnes Becker led the study on Dissemination activity and impact of maternal and newborn health projects, and produced an updated report in April 2015.



  1. Kuruvilla S., Mays N., Pleasant A. and Walt G. Describing the impact of health research: a Research Impact Framework BMC Health Services Research 2006, 6:134 doi:10.1186/1472-6963-6-134


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Shirine Voller

IDEAS Project Manager (on secondment to KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme 2016 - 2017)