Background: Measuring the policy and practice impacts of research is becoming increasingly important. Policy impacts can be measured from two directions – tracing forward from research and tracing backwards from a policy outcome. In this review, we compare these approaches and document the characteristics of studies assessing research impacts on policy and the policy utilisation of research.

Methods: Keyword searches of electronic databases were conducted in December 2016. Included studies were published between 1995 and 2016 in English and reported methods and findings of studies measuring policy impacts of specified health research, or research use in relation to a specified health policy outcome, and reviews reporting methods of research impact assessment. Using an iterative data extraction process, we developed a framework to define the key elements of empirical studies (assessment reason, assessment direction, assessment starting point, unit of analysis, assessment methods, assessment endpoint and outcomes assessed) and then documented the characteristics of included empirical studies according to this framework.

Results: We identified 144 empirical studies and 19 literature reviews. Empirical studies were derived from two parallel streams of research of equal size, which we termed ‘research impact assessments’ and ‘research use assessments’. Both streams provided insights about the influence of research on policy and utilised similar assessment methods, but approached measurement from opposite directions. Research impact assessments predominantly utilized forward tracing approaches while the converse was true for research use assessments. Within each stream, assessments focussed on narrow or broader research/policy units of analysis as the starting point for assessment, each with associated strengths and limitations. The two streams differed in terms of their relative focus on the contributions made by specific research (research impact assessments) versus research more generally (research use assessments) and the emphasis placed on research and the activities of researchers in comparison to other factors and actors as influencers of change.

Conclusions: The Framework presented in this paper provides a mechanism for comparing studies within this broad field of research enquiry. Forward and backward tracing approaches, and their different ways of ‘looking’, tell a different story of research-based policy change. Combining approaches may provide the best way forward in terms of linking outcomes to specific research, as well as providing a realistic picture of research influence.


research impact assessment, research payback, policy impact, research use, evidence-informed policy

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