Ex ante evaluation of societal impact in research: Towards a conceptually-based reflection
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The idea of creating societal impact from publicly funded research has grown in the last decade from a relatively fringe concern related to high-technology entrepreneurship and spin-off companies to an increasingly dominant element of public policy demands for research. This has in turn stimulated a growth in academic science policy research looking at research impact and seeking to conceptualise the ways in which knowledge creation in academic contexts can be coupled to real world outcomes. The bulk of this research has focused on ex post impact, the impacts created by individual research activities or streams after their completion, and there has been much research on ex post impact evaluation. However, evaluating impact ex ante – in research proposals – is becoming increasingly important to funding decisions, and there is very little knowledge relating to what constitutes good impact in a planning proposal. Achieving effect ex ante impact evaluation is necessary to ensure that resources flow to researchers who are planning to create impactful research, and thereby encouraging all researchers to deliver impactful research. In this paper, we develop a conceptual framework for evaluating research impact ex ante, noting that a research proposal constitutes a promise to create future impact. We argue there are two dimensions by which proposals make credible promises, by proposing activities that couple their knowledge with users, and also by making those coupling elements dependencies within the overall project proposal. On this basis, we propose an overall conceptual framework for evaluating research proposal impact ex ante, and suggest an analytic framework for exploring this empirically.