Lessons from Three Retrosight Studies Suggest Taking a 'DECISIVE' Approach to Research Funding

Cover image for RR1132, A 'DECISIVE' approach to research funding


Research funders in many areas increasingly need to show the impact of the research they fund. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 was developed as the first nationwide assessment of the impact of university research using a case study approach. The UK Research Councils, and some other funders, request applicants to articulate how their research translates into societal benefits and require all successful grant holders to report annually on the impacts of their research. From a conceptual point of view, there is an emerging literature looking at how to measure and support research impact and the effect of different funding approaches and environments.

The Retrosight approach consists of looking at research that was conducted in the past (typically 10-25 years ago) and, using Payback case studies, tracing that research through to the present day. The purpose of the approach is to understand both the extent to which the research has had impacts, within academia and more widely, and how these impacts have come about.

RAND Europe has conducted three Retrosight studies in different research fields: arthritis research, cardiovascular research and mental health research. Each outlined a set of observations and recommendations for policymakers and research funders in those research fields.


To learn about how biomedical and health research funders could select research and researchers to maximise the chances of making a difference to society, we reviewed three large-scale RAND Europe Retrosight studies.


We identified eight lessons which form a ‘DECISIVE’ approach to biomedical and health research funding:

Different skills: Fund researchers with more than just research skills — individuals are key when it comes to translation of research into wider impact

Engaged: Suggest your researchers engage with non-academic stakeholders to help their work have a wider impact

Clinical: For greater impact on patient care within 10-20 years, fund clinical rather than basic research

Impact on society: To have wider impact, don’t just fund for academic excellence

Size: Recognise that bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to the size of a research grant

International: For high academic impact, fund researchers who collaborate internationally and support their efforts

Variety: Be aware that simple metrics will only capture some of the impact of your research

Expectations: Accept that the broadest social and economic impact will come from just a few projects

This project was carried out by RAND Europe in collaboration with The Policy Institute at Kings College London. It was funded by the Policy Research Programme in the Department of Health.

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