Knowledge exchange and impact
Grown in the dark?
Nick Hood

Knowledge exchange and impact

2023, Feb 02    

I participated in one of the online seminars in the University’s Researcher Development Series, entitled “Knowledge exchange and impact”. Whilst my research is, so I thought, a long way from having impact on the wider world, I attended this to understand what these terms mean in relation to academic research in the university. Although I have been at the University for a decade, my contract has never had a research element to it but now as a (very much part-time) PhD researcher, I thought it might be good to know about these terms 1.

The session was presented by Dr. Sarah McGeown with Prof. Judy Robertson. Sarah began by distinguishing between Knowledge exchange and Impact. This was the first revelation to me as I had always thought of it as Knowledge exchange and Impact.

Knowledge exchange

The exchange in this idea is the exchange of knowledge with non-academic audiences: the wider world beyond the narrow confines of people who spend their lives knowing about the nitty-gritty of this stuff. The wider audience can include partners or participants in the research. The exchange can come about through giving public talks or webinars about the research, running workshops (for practitioners, for example) and through networks and meetings.

Knowledge exchange makes impact more likely but not it does not necessarily make it happen. More than once during the seminar, both Sarah and Judy pushed back against the sense that research isn’t worth doing if it doesn’t have demonstrable, verifiable, REF-able impact. There is clearly a hierarchy of some kind here and, as with many things in civilised society, those of greater perceived value attract the money. That’s what the REF is all about, of course, as it determines where the research funding goes.

That said, knowledge exchange has great value, and why wouldn’t it have? Finding things out is the stuff of science and human endeavour, and sharing new learning, new ideas, or new ways of thinking can surely only make the world a better place. The trick with sharing learning, as any teacher will tell you, is to pitch at the right level. Knowledge exchange, in seminars, workshops, publications, and so on, should therefore align with the audience, by using appropriate vocabulary, for example.


Impact for our purposes is “impact beyond academia”. It can be an outcome from knowledge exchange but not all KE has impact in this sense. Impact, to be counted towards the REF, the UK’s expert review process, is evaluated as part of that process. It is one of three assessable elements in a submission to the REF, the other two being quality of output and the environment that supports research. Examples of impact which may be evaluated include:

  • policy change
  • practice change
  • testimonials
  • citations in public reports

Considerations for researchers when takign account of impact in their research include thinking about the users and beneficiaries of the research; how this is facilitated; preprints to allow citation of the work before it is published; how might the imact be amplified; and how it might be quantitatively or qualitatively evaluated.


Judy and Sarah described briefly examples of REF impact case studies, the first being Developing and implementing a new computing science curriculum in Scottish schools, in which research contributed to improving digital literacy through the curriculum and teacher capacity. This project included both empirical and theoretical aspects, with impact being corroborated by independent evaluators. The second example was Improving reading and challenging gender stereotypes in Scotland which changed literacy practice and influenced national programmes, also contributing to parliamentary debate on raising attainment in literacy.

What was learned

Both Judy and Sarah reflected on the experience of submitting to REF 2021. I got the distinct impression that this is not a trivial task, and reading the two impact case studies betrays great authority, very calmly stated. This is the stuff of aspiration yet our hosts were in no way elitist in their tone, talking as they were to an audience which included a good number of post-graduate researchers. They encouraged participation in networks outside of academia in order to provide opportunities for knowledge exchange, and to make use of support from within the university, including the School’s RKE Directorate. My own question, whether to write research questions with intent to have impact, was pragmatically dealt with by, “get your PhD first”. I loved that response.


    1. This post is based on my contemporaneous notes which in turn are a subjective record of my understanding at the time. I am responsible for any errors in reporting or representation in this post.