Episode 7

Published on:

16th Aug 2023

(S5E7) Impact strategies with Saskia Gent

In our weekly Research Culture Uncovered conversations we are asking what is Research Culture and why does it matter? This episode is part of Season 5, where we are investigating the impact of impact on research culture. In this episode your host Ged is joined by Saskia Gent.

Saskia Gent is Director of Insights for Impact, which she founded in 2017. Prior to that she was Head of Research Quality and Impact at the University of Sussex, where she led the University’s submission to the Research Excellence Framework, the UK’s national research assessment exercise, in 2014. Her experience with impact goes all the way back to 2010 working on a project funded by the UK Government to help developing countries realise benefits from migration. You can connect to Saskia on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saskia has helped a number of research organisations and universities to develop impact strategies and she was co-author on a paper that analysed 77 impact strategies from across the globe.

I ask Saskia about this work and her take on how to develop a successful strategy. Her main messages include:

  • the importance of impact and strategies being value driven
  • that they should be co-produced with the researchers and external stakeholders
  • there are two main types of strategy: enabling impact and achieving impact
  • which may mean that you need nested strategies in large institutions. An enabling strategy at the institutional-level and achieving strategies at the research unit level (e.g. Schools, departments, programmes, etc).

Be sure to check out the other episodes in this season to find out more about how to ensure impact has a positive effect on your research culture.


Follow us on twitter: @ResDevLeeds, @OpenResLeeds, @ResCultureLeeds, @HallGed

Connect to us on LinkedIn: @ResearchUncoveredPodcast, @GedHall

If you would like to contribute to a podcast episode get in touch: researcherdevelopment@leeds.ac.uk


Welcome to the Research Culture Uncovered podcast, where in every episode we explore what is research culture and what should it be. You'll hear thoughts and opinions from a range of contributors to help you change research culture into what you want it to be.


Hi, this is Ged Hall, and for those of you who don't know me, I'm an academic development consultant at the University of Leeds. You're joining us in season five of our Research Culture Uncovered podcast, where we're diving into the effects of research impact on research culture, and focusing on different topics to ensure those effects are positive.

Impact, which she founded in:

Saskia 00:01:22

Hi Ged. Nice to see you.


Good to see you too.

As I've said in previous interviews, I'm a bit of a sports fanatic. So before we dive into the interview, Saskia, I wonder if you could tell me more about your footballing career .


Well, I wouldn't really describe it as a career. In actual fact, um, I suppose the, the thwarting of a sort of sporting career is where it came from. Um, I, uh, set up and run with a, with a great friend of mine, a veteran's women's football team.

Uh, so I started my footballing career when I was 43. Um, and I think we are now a, a group. Of, uh, around 25, uh, women were sort of all over 40, uh, average age now 53. Um, and we're primarily, uh, women who were never able to play football at school. It wasn't a girl's sport. Um, and so we, we didn't have the chance to play then, and we are absolutely loving the chance

to, to play later in life. So we're all pretty new to it. Um, I actually, uh, observed a walking football, men's walking football game recently and realised they're probably faster than we are anyway. Um, but we, we have a fantastic coach every other week. Um, and we started nearly 10 years ago now. Um, and it's re the whole sport has really grown.

Um, women's recreational footballs grown massive. You know, helped by the, I'm sure the huge success of, uh, the national team. Um, but locally we've, there are, uh, increasing numbers of, of teams that play, and so we get to play, um, slightly more competitive matches. I, I wouldn't say they're entirely competitive, but more competitive matches.

Um, and it's a fantastic, uh, thing. I've never really been a sports person in the past, um, in my day. You know, you either liked books or sport and I liked books, so I didn't really do sport until I was much older. Um, one thing that I'm absolutely delighted about this year is that, um, my company Insights for Impact is now sponsoring our football shirt.

So, uh, that's a real, uh, a real achievement for me as a bit of a, a milestone, I think, uh, to be sponsoring my own football team.


That's fantastic. Yeah. Yeah. Maybe you're one of those really rich, um, owners that come into the, the Premier League in the UK . That's fantastic actually.


I'd love to give, yeah, to find, I'd love to buy a few more, uh, skilled players, but, uh, what we've got


I had to give up my football career in my thirties, uh, when my knees gave away.

back onto, onto impact during:

So focusing in on that, what's the most common advice you give to institutional clients who want to develop an impact strategy? .


Yeah, I mean, I guess the, the sort of my usual starting point is to kind of ask them why they want to do this. Um, I think there's sometimes a sense that this is, you know, something that needs needs to be done.

It needs to be ticked off. Um, but really thinking about, you know, what's your motivation for doing it and who is it for? Um, is all, is all always the best place to start? I mean, we found that a large proportion of the strategies we looked at, um, were kind of impact bits of a broader research strategy. And I'm very much of the mind that impact and research should be, um, incorporated.

You know, that that impact is an essential part of research, and they should be seen as kind of a one, one package of activity rather than impact being bolted on. And we've had a bit of this discussion in the UK quite recently where, uh, the Research Councils, the funding bodies in the UK, uh, used to require researchers to write about impact separately in what was called the Pathways to Impact section of research funding.

That was then removed and the case was made that actually impact should be embedded, uh, right across. And I do, I completely agree with that. I think that's the right way to do things. But I guess my question is, are we ready to do that yet? You know, have we got the understanding, the capacity, the skills, the motivation to make sure that that does happen?

And I think that in many instances, that isn't. We are not yet. We are not yet there. You know, that's the aspiration and that's the direction that things ought to move in. Um, and so I guess I'm, I'm often thinking about, you know, where is this fitting? Is this something that is well integrated into the research culture, into the research endeavour, um, as a whole?

Or is it something that's bolted on and I'm ve you know, I'm very anti the idea that this is something that's, that's bolted on. Um, so one of the questions that I ask is kind of what, what's there already? You know, do you already have a research culture, a research strategy into which you're trying to embed your impact activity?

Can you co-develop your impact strategy as part of a broader research strategy? Which, you know, is really kind of my, my ideal starting point. You know, we're not always in that, in that situation, but that's kind of what I would be, what I would recommend. Um, and in the work with PML, they had sort of, they were sort of almost at the end of their research strategy development.

And so we kind of had to sort of re, re uh, retrofit some, some of that to some extent. Um, but you know, that, that's my, that would be my ideal starting point to, to, to ensure that it's being embedded in a broader, uh, research strategy. And then I think one of the really important questions is about if you are prepared to make some hard decisions because, you know, a strategic making, making the case for any sort of strategy is often about what your, what you don't do as much

as what you do do and in, uh, university re university strategies, university research strategies in particular, I mean, researchers, universities have such a wide remit that often they find it really hard not to say we do everything. Um, you know, you can see this as, um, universities develop their sort of thematic approaches often it's

how broad can we make these themes so everything is gonna fit into it rather than really focusing in on what they want to be expert in or what they want to, um, really invest in. Um, because investing in specific areas might mean that you aren't investing in other areas and that you know that if people aren't prepared to make those very, very difficult decisions, then you know it's going, you know, you, you, you, you're gonna be led down a certain path.

Um, And so understanding if you know, where, where people are with that is, is one of the key things. And then the third, uh, the other thing that I, um, have been asking people about recently and probably, uh, results in me not having as many kind of, uh, contracts as I might do in this area, is like, what, what have you already got?

Research Excellence Framework:

So have a look at that and see, see what you're saying in there. And, uh, and, and maybe that that might be a place to, a good place to start.


That's great. And uh, uh, you know, I definitely, uh, agree with your concerns about the removal of Pathways to Impact. Personally, I thought it was too soon. Um, culture change from 2009 when it was introduced takes much longer than that actually.

Um, especially in. Especially in our sector, uh, actually the HE sector where culture doesn't really move that quickly. Um, just moving on to, um, the strategies, uh, the paper identified that most strategies didn't really define what was meant by impact culture and, and its interaction with, with research culture.

And in the discussion it was noted that many strategies are more about perpetuating maybe a corporate culture. If we can, if you can describe it about that, what's your concern with this approach?


Um, I guess part of that is, you know, to go back to the point about how impact fits in. Um, and that sometimes, um, The, uh, elements of a strategy which are going to affect culture are subsumed, um, into some sort of very broad brush, uh, uh, research strategy elements.

So things about, you know, open access, equality. Uh, that there tend, they could, they can be sort of very general and, and tend to be rather top down in that sort of situation. But I think one of the concerns was that the, the ideas about of culture, uh, use of the word culture was, was there was an assumption or, you know, it wasn't really explained.

And, uh, you know, there were different definitions of what, what culture is. But it's a very complex idea, you know, and includes a whole range of different things. We identified behaviour, values, expectations, attitudes, uh, norms. Um, and I think the attention and concern about research culture, you, you've probably talked about this in, in many of your, uh, interviews already, but the, there's this, I think, um, wel the Wellcome Trust work on this is used as this, this idea of disruption and the, and the elements that can disrupt a healthy research culture.

Um, so you, proliferation of metrics, um, competitive, uh, competition, job insecurity, uh, rigid career pathways over, over focus on what they call chasing impact. Uh, those things can, uh, can, uh, disrupt a healthy research culture. So it's almost like, you know, Uh, there, there isn't really a clear picture of what a good, uh, research culture is there

what the, um, impact culture [:

And so that was really one of the concerns that it was sort of unexamined. It wasn't necessarily clear, uh, what the strategies were talking about. Um, and that, you know, this was fairly, il il-defined. And that they were, you know, very sort of, you know, direct aspirational statements. One of the things that we talked about in the, in the paper was the, the, the, the potential for, uh, future strategies to look more about sort of, um, implementation.

Uh, and so I think this is an area where a bit more examination of how these things, you know, what they, what they really mean on the ground and how you might actually work towards those, um, aspirations is going to be. Uh, really important on the positive side. Um, I think this also accords with the, uh, focus on, um, supporting, kind of inherent motivations that came through the, um, the paper.

So thinking about, um, you know, how you, how you align these sorts of strategies and activities with researcher values, inherent values that are kind of, um, motivating. And again, uh, help researchers move towards their own, um, expectations and ambitions for their career, for their work, uh, for their societal, um, impacts and so on, um, rather than these external drivers.

So, you know, the, uh, Strategies which are driven more by values, mission, leadership, I think are, are really key things. Um, rather than these, the extrinsic, uh, assessment of, you know, getting x number of four star case studies, um, is, is more likely to lead to, uh, uh, positive research and impact culture. I think.


Yeah, absolutely. I totally agree with that too. Um, just moving on to kind of those almost bottom up, um, values driven strategies. Did any of the, of the 77 that you analyzed, discuss those kinds of approaches to developing, um, a good culture? And what would your advice be in trying to do this effectively?


Yeah, um, so in the. Paper we identified two broad types of impact strategies, what we call enabling strategies and achieving strategies. And really that kind of the, the, that sort of, um, framework or the sort of research question around that kind of came out of the work with, with PML, sort of looking at what was out there, uh, looking at kind of where they were.

Um, looking at other, other strategies to sort of inform, inform the work with them. And it became clear that, um, some of the sort of larger organizations with more sort of, uh, broader aims or broader remit, like, you know, a university level strategy tended to focus on the, on the enabling, uh, on, on the enabling side.

So it, that's more about, um, uh, creating, um, , uh, uh, uh, impact capacity, building culture, focus on partnerships and engagement, investing in the support and the capacity for, for, uh, building impact. It was what I, um, originally called 'Do Better Impact'. That was that became honed into a slightly more professional term of enabling impact strategies.

Um, and then on the other side, uh, These with the smaller, maybe more topic focused organisations, more sort of research institute type organisations. We identified these in sort of achieving impact strategies, um, where there was more focus uh, more focused on specific beneficiaries, tended to be more structured implementation plans, um, often operating more as a boundary organization, so more closer to stakeholders.

Um, having a more co, more focused on co-production, um, and. More focused on generating best practice at the sort of project, uh, project level, less, less focused on, um, ex extrinsic. And so those, those, um, achieving impact strategies that tended to have more, um, Uh, now what, how could we com? How could we compare it?

So compared instead of the 'Do Better Impact', it's more 'Change Specific Things'. You know, that's kind of what they want to do. They want to, you know, make a, they're more change oriented and I think they tend, um, to have a more bottom up approach. And what we saw you know, they're, they're more, they, they're more likely to co-produce their impact strategies.

They're closer to stakeholders, understand stakeholders needs, and they use that information to build impact strategies, which I think most of us would consider to be good practice. And so in the, in the strategies paper, we talked about the possibility of creating some sort of nested strategy, uh, where, um, you know, where maybe at project or departmental or research unit level, You, you, you can create those more co co-produced strategies and then build up from there and maybe have an overarching enabling impact strategy, which is really built on the needs of those specific projects rather than the the more top down approach.


Yeah, I mean that's what we've tried to, tried to do with our institutional strategy is kind of, you know, say that kind of thing needs to be done at school level, closer, closer to the stakeholders and really take those views on board. So we're really hoping that, that, that actually delivers, uh, over the next year or two.

Okay. We've mentioned, um, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, PML a number of times, um, and you did some great work with them, and the paper had identified their research strategy as one of the exemplars from the 77 you looked at. So tell us a l tell us a little bit more, more about PML, the institution and the work you did with them and, and what's so great about their strategy.


Sure Yeah. Okay. Well, first of all, I should say that I didn't have anything to do with selecting them as one of the exemplars. I was , I was excluded from that discussion. So, uh, uh, I didn't have any influence on that and was delighted that they were, that they were selected as, as one of the, um, useful exemplars.

Um, So I think this was something. So Plymouth Marine Laboratory, um, are, uh, uh, based in the UK. Uh, they're actually a registered charity. Uh, they're, they're funded, um, by, uh, NERC, uh, the, um, I can't remember what the acronym for NERC stands for. I dunno if you know what what it is.


But it's just Natural Environment research Council.

It's the one I struggle with the most as well. ,


there a research council that focuses on. And resourcing issues. Um, and, uh, they, uh, PML were not part of the, the last REF cycle, but they did have to generate impact case studies, uh, for their, for their key funder. Um, and they, uh, and, and I, uh, supported them with, with doing that.

But essentially coming out of that, they realized where there were some kind of holes in what they were doing. Uh, you know, that there was, uh, there were pockets of excellence, but they wanted to ensure that they were really kind of raising, um, the level of impact activity, right across the organization. And I have to say that although I, I operated kind of on a, on a sort of coaching basis with, with, with PML, with the two, with the two leads who were, who were running the, the strategy, which was a fantastic way to work with them.

Um, partly because they were so active, they were so engaged in, in how this was done. And they did a s a brilliant job of internal communications. That was really key to, to them developing this. You know, they started with the survey. They communicated brilliantly with the, with the research body and with the senior management.

And that really, really helped, I think, lay the foundations for something that was successful. And we mapped kind of three different strands that they were interested in. And so, you know, the, the culture was one of those, you know, they wanted to, to have a, a more impact driven research culture, but they understood that this was, you know, that they needed to raise awareness and understanding they needed a more active

internal dialogue. Um, and they needed to provide some, some more, um, support structures. Um, they were in interested internally in kind of capturing and recognizing and understanding. So building in some evaluation. Um, but also they understood that, you know, external relationships were really gonna be key to this.

As we know, relationships with stakeholders underpins all successful impact. Um, and so they put in a, a, a real, a strand that was really about building some of those longer term relationships, um, prioritizing, strategically prioritizing engagement with certain, uh, certain stakeholders. Um, and, and we worked, you know, we worked together.

I, I did a sort of information gathering exercise, uh, with their senior management and looking at kind of where they were internally. Compared that with, you know, with some of the good practice that we see externally, uh, and then, and, and made and sort of development recommendations for them, uh, together.

And we, we identified that they were kind of between enabling and achieving at the time. Um, But they very, they had a very, sort of, some very clear change objectives. And actually one of the interesting in discussions we had internally was how far we could persuade the senior management to commit some of those external impact objectives.

You know, I think they were concerned that they would be held to account, uh, you know, for, for some of their ambitions around, um, biodiversity loss or creating sustainable fisheries and agriculture. You know, they, they, they were quite cautious about having some of these really. As we, we saw them quite powerful, um, kind of change objectives built into their, um, into their impact strategy.

Um, and so there was quite a long period of, of sort of negotiation about what the, what the impact strategy could, uh, could include. Um, uh, but, but, uh, you know, essentially they they ended up with. Something was, which was based around an overarching theory of change, um, which had, um, kind of enablers within it.

Mm-hmm. , um, and an ambition to create, um, sort of, uh, a nested theory of change for, for, for the, the key areas of, um, impact. Um, beneath that. Uh, and, and that's, I think still work in progress for them. But, uh, um, I'm, I'm very pleased to see that they're, that they're being asked to go and talk about impact at some sort of quite high level, uh, UN organizations and so on.

So, uh, I think, uh, I think they're, they're demonstrating some, some achievements in that area.


Yeah, it was, um, I mean, for me personally, it was a great conversation and thanks for making the introduction. You know, it really helped to, um, cement some of our thinking and how we might do it actually. Mm-hmm.

you know, it's, it's okay having these aspirations, but it's actually, how do you do it? That's, uh, yeah, that's also really important. Um, , I could talk to you about this all day, but we're, you know, we're coming to the end of our time together. And so the final question is really kind of trying to summarize all of this.

So, uh, and actually kind of, uh, you know, a bit of a meta question in terms of what's the impact on that piece of research been for you? Um, so how has the, how's conducting this research influenced how you work with university clients in developing strategies and or supporting researchers, either in groups or individuals to achieve impact?


Yeah. Okay. Well, I mean, I guess first of all, uh, it's not the sort of thing that I do every day. You know, working with, uh, an institution to develop an impact strategy is kind of, you know, it's a, it's a, it's a fairly large project, and so they're, you know, they're not, they're not coming through the door every day.

But I have had the opportunity to work with, uh, with several organisations on, on this. Um, and, uh, . I think one of the things that really underpins our work together is, is thinking about value. Is thinking about values. So, you know, asking the why question. Um, making sure that they're, you know, that, that our, our values are aligned because, you know, I'm, I'm, I'm, I guess I'm motivated by the idea of creating, um, a, a positive research and impact culture, and I'm not keen to support things where I think, you know, it's going to create that sort of disruption or sense of competition or, uh, frustration for researchers.

So, you know, the idea of working with, um, with values and with inherent motivations is really key to my work. Um, both in terms of developing strategies, but also in, in terms of the sort of broader work that I do. I do quite a lot of. Uh, work with, uh, projects or with individual researchers, you know, perhaps and, and a sort of more coaching, um, model to support, uh, researchers with their impact development.

Um, and so again, this idea of, of working with values and, and it, and, uh, aligning our work with kind of inherent motivation is, it really is key to, to pretty much everything I do. And, um, I find that, that, that builds rapport with people, uh, researchers respond to it. This is really hard work to do. You know, we know that researchers are negotiating how this fits in with their broader research careers, how they find the time for it, how it's valued in their organisations.

And so if they, if they can't tap into their own inherent motivations, it's going to make it much more of a struggle. Um, you know, and I, and so I'm, I'm kind of both working with inherent motivations. Yes, this is important for you to do. But then some of those ex ex external, um, drivers also really need to be in place.

Those supportive, um, you know, making sure that workflow models don't mitigate against, um, impact work. Making sure that, you know, research leave isn't only for writing a paper, but also you can think about impact work, making sure that you know the promotion criteria really are embedding impact in them, not just saying it, but also the panels are aware of what this means and what it looks like.

You know, really driving that through all of those activities and not just, not just in the, in the strategies that are on paper, not just in the policies, but actually in in practice.


Yeah, absolutely. And that, you know, policies aren't, um, aren't the indicator of culture change. It's the behaviors, the indicator of culture change and, and that thing with panels.

That's absolutely, um, that's absolutely crucial in terms of if they don't operationalize the, the impact criteria, then it doesn't, then it doesn't happen.


Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. If your panels don't understand impact and don't value impact, then it, it's not going to, um, you know, having it in the criteria isn't gonna have the powerful effect that it can do.



Saskia, thank you so much for a really interesting chat and um, and I really hope the football team takes off under, under your new, uh, sponsorship arrangement.


Excellent. Lots more goals in 2023.


Absolutely. Thanks a lot.


Thanks a lot. Great to talk. Bye.


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About the Podcast

Research Culture Uncovered
Changing Research Culture through conversations
At the University of Leeds, we believe that all members of our research community play a crucial role in developing and promoting a positive and inclusive research culture. Across the globe, the urgent need for a better Research Culture in Higher Education is widely accepted – but how do you make it happen? This weekly podcast focuses on our ideas, approaches and learning as we contribute to the University's attempt to create a Research Culture in which everyone can thrive. Whether you undertake, lead, fund or benefit from research - these are the conversations to listen to if you want to explore what a positive Research Culture is and why it matters.

Unless specified in the episode shownotes, Research Culture Uncovered © 2023 by Research Culturosity, University of Leeds is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. This license requires that reusers give credit to the creator. If you remix, adapt, or build upon the material, you must license the modified material under identical terms. Some episodes may be licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0, please check before use.

About your hosts

Emma Spary

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I moved into development after several years as an independent researcher and now lead the team providing professional and career development for all researchers and those supporting research. I am passionate about research culture and supporting people. I lead our Concordat implementation work and was part of the national Concordat writing group. I represent Leeds as a member of Researchers14, the N8PDRA group and UKRI’s Alternative Uses Group.

Taryn Bell

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I work as a Researcher Development Adviser at the University of Leeds. My focus is on career development, with a particular focus on supporting funding and fellowships. I previously worked at the University of York as their Fellowship Coordinator, developing and growing the University's community of early career fellows. Get in touch if you'd like to learn more (T.L.Bell@leeds.ac.uk)!

Katie Jones

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I am a Researcher Development and Culture Project Officer at the University of Leeds, where I lead projects within the Researcher Development and Culture Team. My role involves managing projects that enhance the development of researchers and foster a positive research culture across the University and the higher education sector.

Tony Bromley

Profile picture for Tony Bromley
I've worked in the area of the development of researchers for 20 years, including at the national and international level. I was lead author of the UK sector researcher development impact framework charged with evaluating the over £20M per year investment of UK research councils in researcher development. I have convened the international Researcher Education and Development Scholarship (REDS) conference for a number of years and have published on researcher development evaluation and pedagogy. All the details are on www.tonybromley.com !! Also why not take a look at https://conferences.leeds.ac.uk/reds/

Ged Hall

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I've worked for almost 20 years in researcher development, careers guidance and academic skills development. For the last decade I've focused on the area of research impact. This has included organisational development projects and professional development for individual researchers and groups. I co-authored the Engaged for Impact Strategy and am heavily involved in its implementation, across the University of Leeds, to build a healthy impact culture. For 10 years after my PhD, I was a consultant in the utility sector, which included being broker between academia and my clients.

Ruth Winden

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After many years running my own careers consultancy business I made the transition to researcher development leading our careers provision. My background is in career coaching, facilitation and group-based coaching, and I have a special interest in cohort-based coaching programmes which help researchers manage their careers proactively and transition into any sector and role of their choice.

Nick Sheppard

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I have worked in scholarly communications for over 15 years, currently as Open Research Advisor at the University of Leeds. I am interested in effective dissemination of research through sustainable models of open access, including underlying data, and potential synergies with open education and Open Educational Resources (OER), particularly underlying technology, software and interoperability of systems.