How to write the best impact case studies: feedback from the NERC Impact Awards panels

Chair of the NERC Impact Awards 2018 shortlisting and judging panels Dr Peter Costigan feeds back on this year’s applications with insights from the panels on how to best represent your impact in case studies.

It’s been a pleasure to chair the NERC Impact Awards shortlisting and judging panels over the past few months. I know that the panel members have been inspired by the varied and impressive ways that environmental science contributes to our quality of life and economy.

In assessing the entries, the panels made some observations on what makes a compelling impact case study. With the REF and the evaluation of NERC centres coming up we thought it might be helpful to share our thoughts, which we feel are particularly relevant as NERC used a very similar case study format to REF, and the same impact definition and assessment criteria: reach and significance.

As you may know from experience, it takes time and effort to write a good case study. The case studies that came across and scored particularly well had some similar strengths:

Understanding the Audience

Case study assessors are often not technical experts in the specific field of the case study, because of the breadth of material to be covered. And they often have many case studies to read through. So it is important to get your message across as clearly as possible. The highest quality case studies:

  • Explained why the work was significant to the real world and why the reader should care. A few key facts to set the context were often helpful, for example the size of the sector, the cost of the problem.
  • Were written clearly and engagingly, explaining technical terms. If the key points are easy to identify, it makes the case study more accessible to the assessors, and facilitates discussion amongst the panel.

Explaining the pathway

The best case studies showed clearly and concisely how the work in question led to the impact. In this case it was NERC-funded work, in the REF it would be the (at least) 2 Star research. They confirmed that the NERC-funded activity had made a distinct and material contribution to the impact. This section does not need to be long and detailed, just clear. Where the pathway was not clearly explained, it was sometimes difficult to tie the impacts to the underlying NERC-funded activities.

It is interesting that the pathway to impact is not always predictable at the outset, but may arise from communicating the work to people working on different issues. This demonstrates the value of cross-disciplinary communications and activities. Impact can arise indirectly and not follow a linear pathway.

Providing clear evidence of impact

The other main focus of the case study should be an evidenced description of the impact, or in other words what the benefits have been and who has benefitted. The highest scoring case studies:

  • Focused on impact that had already happened, meaning they complied with the impact definition*. Examples included money earned or saved, implemented policy changes, realised environmental or wellbeing improvements. Panels had to disregard suggestions of potential future impact as the impact definition only includes effects, changes or benefits already delivered.
  • Clearly described, with supporting evidence, what the benefits were and who had benefitted. Evidence originating from beneficiaries and other relevant third parties, such as testimonials and usage/performance information was particularly convincing.
  • Tried to capture all the benefits of the impact. In doing that, it can be really helpful to think about the benefits from the point of view of the beneficiaries, to ensure that all the benefits are identified.

SL Panel Photo Costigan

Dr Peter Costigan is an environmental consultant, and previously worked for Defra. He chaired the NERC Impact Awards shortlisting and judging panels in both the 2015 and 2018 rounds, was a member of REF 2014 panel B, and is a member of REF 2021 panel B.

More information about the competition, plus details of the six shortlisted entries is available on the NERC website.

* Impact Awards (and REF) definition of impact: An effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia. Impact may include cost savings, for example reduction or prevention of negative effects, or benefits resulting from a decision not to undertake a particular course of action.

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