Research impact: the new jargon for knowledge to action

This talk is being held as part of the Knowledge into Action module which is one of the optional modules for the MSc in Evidence-Based Health Care. Members of the public are welcome to attend.

Trish Greenhalgh is an internationally recognised academic in primary health care and a practising GP. She leads a programme of research at the interface between social sciences and medicine, with strong emphasis on the organisation and delivery of health services. Her research seeks to celebrate and retain the traditional and humanistic aspects of medicine while also embracing the unparalleled opportunities of contemporary science and technology to improve health outcomes and relieve suffering. Her past research has covered the evaluation and improvement of clinical services at the primary-secondary care interface, particularly the use of narrative methods to illuminate the illness experience in ‘hard to reach’ groups; the challenges of implementing evidence-based practice (including the study of knowledge translation and research impact); the adoption and use of new technologies (including electronic patient records and assisted living technologies) by both clinicians and patients; and the application of philosophy to clinical practice.

This lecture will present the findings of a recently conducted HTA-funded systematic review on models and methodologies for measuring research impact. Universities are now assessed not merely by their publications and grant income but also by their ‘impact’. This is potentially good news for those of us who are concerned about ivory tower research that sits on shelves (or electronic repositories of so-called ‘high impact’ journals) but has little effect on practice or policy. If we are going to take impact seriously, we need to be clear about the philosophical assumptions underpinning different kinds of research and also the different kinds of links between research, practice and policy. The literature on impact in health services research has strong positivist roots and draws heavily on ‘logic models’ linking upstream research with downstream impact – the basis of the new discipline of ‘implementation science’. But in recent years this literature has become more philosophically diverse, attempting to combine the outputs of a firmly positivist evidence–based medicine (e.g. quantitative findings on the efficacy of tests and treatments) with a broader (constructivist, realist, performative) epistemology of research utilisation that incorporates various social science disciplines (notably, social psychology, organisational sociology, social policy, and science and technology studies). This means that ‘models’, however elegant, typically disappoint and the crafting of an ‘impact case study’ is often more art than science.