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Formulating research outputs, outcomes, and impacts in project proposals

Funding agencies, citizens, and those among us are demanding more real-world application and relevance of research results to address our sustainability challenges. However, the pathways to generate this research impact require careful planning as well as some luck. In this workshop, participants discussed strategies to articulate the process of generating research impact in project proposals.

Research impact is the good that researchers can do in the world. So, what good do you want to do in the world? For example, one can aspire to influence policies, to improve understanding and awareness, to reduce environmental impact, or to support capacity development and preparedness. Whatever the impact, the shared aspiration for impact is a good starting point for writing multidisciplinary funding proposals, because this will dictate the choice of collaborators, research questions, methods, samples, and scope. 

The aim of the workshop was to clarify how vocabulary related to research impact can vary, depending both on disciplinary traditions and on specific instructions of research calls. For example, participants discussed various understandings of research output, research outcome, and research impact. Workshop presenters emphasised several reasons to focus on research impact and shared their tips for formulating research impact in project proposals.

The hybrid workshop is one of a series of workshops, arranged by the Strategic Research Areas (SRAs) and Sustainability Forum at Lund University, aimed at creating a venue to share experiences, discuss collaboration, and foster deeper reflection on sustainability. 

Read more about the LU Strategic Research Areas -

Defining outputs, outcomes, and impact

Funding agencies often require text within the project proposal that outlines the research outputs, outcomes, and impacts. Unfortunately, there are no universal definitions of these concepts, and the terms are sometimes even used interchangeably between disciplines and funding agencies. This creates obvious challenges, which may be overcome through dialogue with project collaborators. 

Jacqueline Postma, Administrative Coordinator at the LU Department of Clinical Sciences in Malmö (EXODIAB), shared her experience supporting researchers to formulate research impact in project proposals. She suggests the following definitions of these fuzzy terms:

  • Research output - The dissemination of new knowledge, concepts, theories, methodologies, or inventions, summarised in a tangible artefact such as a journal article, report, model, prototype, or policy brief
  • Research outcome - The use of new knowledge (i.e. research output) in different contexts, which may lead to an effect in academia or society
  • Research impact - The effect that research has on the economy, society, environment, or culture, typically framed as a positive benefit for society

It’s helpful to think about these concepts as conditional or sequential steps, in other words, an impact pathway. The dissemination of the research results (output) leads to the use of this knowledge by policymakers (outcome), which leads to on effect on policy-making and ultimately towards a change in behaviour for the better of the environment (impact). In the project proposal, it’s important to have an obvious thread connecting the research objective, research questions, methods, and intended results that lead to the research output, outcome, and impact.

Speakers Johanna Alkan Olsson and Rashmi Prasad presented completed research projects to demonstrate their impact logic, helping workshop participants to operationalise the definitions previously presented. Whether biodiversity or diabetes research, they showed how their research results could be acted upon that may lead to an intended effect.

Reasons to Focus on Impact

Whether basic or applied research, there may be different motivations and approaches to formulate research impact in project proposals. Regardless, a focus on impact helps to justify the use of public or private funds to stakeholders, funding agencies, and citizens. In projects with a well-defined impact logic, speaker Johanna Alkan Olsson experienced a more cohesive project, with improved collaborations and clearer communication goals. While this takes more time initially, she suggests that this time is more than made up due to the benefits of a strong application with a shared understanding of what should be achieved, and the concrete pathways to do so.

Tips for Formulating Research Impact in Project Proposals

Speakers and presenters shared their experience formulating research impact. With decades of cumulative experience present at the workshop, the following tips were proposed: 

  • Let impact guide the project proposal - It’s common to think about impact once you arrive at a research result. Instead, by starting with your individual and collective motivation for conducting the research, the shared desire for impact should guide the research design and proposal writing. Designing impact from the beginning helps us to achieve a shared goal and motivates us daily to continue to pursue the research.
  • Read the call text - Read the call text, and read it early, in the process of writing the impact section within a proposal. Most calls expect you to articulate a “theory of change”, or something similar, but such expectations may be phrased using varying terminology. Thus, specifically look at the requirements including templates, impact frameworks, definitions, and assessment criteria, as contexts vary between funders, geographies, and disciplines. 
  • Review resources within your context - It's helpful to look for relevant resources or frameworks to help articulate research impact using more commonly accepted vocabulary. One such resource is the book The Research Impact Handbook by Professor Mark S. Reed. For example, the book presents a typology of research impact referenced in the workshop.
  • Seek successful project proposals for examples - Given differences between disciplines and funding agencies, it may be helpful to seek examples from others to understand how to articulate research impact in your context. It is not about imitation, but adaptation of the impact logic in a way that makes sense to you in your context.
  • Brainstorm with colleagues - Consider the composition of the evaluation committee, and engage relevant colleagues and critical friends from multiple perspectives to ensure a comprehensive and coherent impact logic.
  • Identify and interact with stakeholders early - It’s helpful to engage the users of your research during the proposal writing process. When interacting with stakeholders, consider their time and reasons for embarking on an academic collaboration. Understanding their needs from their perspective helps to craft an impactful and time-saving project proposal with greater engagement from stakeholders, potentially contributing to the project’s legacy. 
  • Set intermediate and realistic milestones - Arriving at a shared understanding of milestones and responsibilities during the proposal writing process generally leads to more engaged project partners. Achieving and reporting on these milestones ensures progress throughout the project, thus saving time and avoiding last minute scrambling to meet reporting deadlines.

With these tips, workshop hosts and speakers hope to have provided a good foundation for you to embark on your own successful applications that generate meaningful research impact. And, take advantage of all the other available resources at Lund University.

Available support from LU Research Services -
Impact Beyond Academia: A guide to help prepare impact evaluations -

This workshop was an initiative by the Strategic Research Areas (SRAs) and Sustainability Forum at Lund University, hosted by EXODIAB (Jacqueline Postma) with support from NanoLund (Anna-Karin Alm) and BECC (Lina Nikoleris).

NanoLund -