Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Five Essential Tips for Writing an Impact Statement


An impact statement is a short, convincing explanation of how your project can have a positive effect on a larger community. Impact statements are often used to support work that is being proposed, and might be included in a grant application, a dissertation proposal, an application for a faculty position, a presentation to corporate executives or potential investors, etc.

Other impact statements describe work that is particularly or fully complete, and are used to justify continued support and to generate publicity. For example, many funding agencies and companies require progress reports every year or every quarter. Universities use impact statements to promote ongoing projects, attract potential students, and solicit donations. Policy makers—including politicians—use these reports to show that public resources are being used for projects that benefit the public good.

Competition for funding and institutional support is often intense, so an effective impact statement can make the difference between enthusiastic financial support and a cancelled project. Here are five tips for writing an effective impact statement. For simplicity, the focus is on writing about proposed work, which is described using future tense (e.g. "We will identify . . ."). To write about completed work, you would simply shift to past tense (e.g. "We identified . . . ").

1. Keep it simple

Impact statements are typically about 1 page long, and rarely longer than 2 pages. Writers should focus on being concise and memorable, rather than being excessively detailed. Your goal is to clearly and convincingly describe: (A) The problem you are trying to address. (B) How you plan to address that problem. (C) Who might benefit from this research. (D) How they might benefit from this research.

The range of worthwhile research projects is immense. Some projects have very obvious impacts, for example:

  1. Problem: Pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of all cancers, with only 4% of patients surviving 5 years after diagnosis.
  2. Plan: Our study will analyze blood samples from first degree relatives of pancreatic cancer patients, in an effort to identify molecular markers of pancreatic cancer that can be used for early detection.
  3. Who benefits: Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the USA and leads to an estimated 227,000 deaths per year worldwide. Many of the risk factors are associated with modern life: smoking, obesity, diabetes mellitus, and a high-fat diet.
  4. How they benefit: Among pancreatic cancer patients, survival is better when the disease is diagnosed before it has metastasized out of the pancreas, since surgical removal is still possible. Unfortunately, 80-85% of patients are currently diagnosed after the cancer has already spread. By identifying molecular markers of pancreatic cancer, at-risk individuals can be screened regularly, diagnosed earlier, and live longer.

Other research projects will have less obvious impacts, so it may be useful to combine the discussion of who benefits and how they benefit:

  1. Problem: Nearly 100 years ago, dark matter was first proposed to explain anomalies in the movement of galaxies, and is now thought to make up 80% of the matter in the universe. However, we still do not know what dark matter is.
  2. Plan: Our project would apply a new technology to the search for axions, which are one of the leading candidates for dark matter. Axions have not yet been proven to exist, but are thought to be billions to trillions of times smaller than an electron. This minuscule size means that extremely sensitive techniques are needed to detect faint axion signals.
  3. Who benefits and how they benefit: This project may provide humans with extraordinary new insight into the very composition of the universe. Even if that goal is not fully realized, this project will pave the way for new technologies that are likely to advance scientific research and improve daily life in ways that are difficult to predict.

2. Know your audience

Impact statements are written for people who are not specialists in your field. Therefore, you should focus on the "big picture," and avoid unnecessarily technical details and jargon. Different audiences will have different backgrounds and perspectives. While your proposed project may remain the same, it's often a good idea to take a slightly different angle for different audiences.

If your intended audience consists of other researchers reviewing your grant application, you don't need to spend much time explaining how basic research in fruit flies provides insight that can then be used to understand more complex animals including humans. However, you should explain this concept clearly when writing a statement that might be included on a university website.

Some groups—including the National Science Foundation (USA) and university donors—want to support research activities that also improve science education and increase minority representation in the sciences. Therefore, it would be wise to emphasize how your project would provide additional research opportunities at your institution, which has a large population of first-generation college students.

Carefully review the priorities of the organization to which you are applying, or the group you are representing. These priorities are often clearly described in the instructions provided to authors, or on the organization website. Then customize your impact statement for that group. As an example, let's consider a psychologist who studies how children recover from trauma. When writing for an organization with a global focus, the psychologist might emphasize how the research can help children in refugee camps. When writing for an organization that focuses on the USA, the emphasis might be on how the same research can help children who have been traumatized by gun violence.

3. Be specific when discussing impact

While academics are accustomed to thinking about traditional academic achievements (grants, publications, tenure, etc), the impact statement requires you to consider how your work will benefit the larger community.

Here are some areas that funding agencies want to impact (with examples):

  • Society (e.g. consequences of increased social isolation)
  • Public policy (e.g. effect of age limits on handgun purchases)
  • Health (e.g. treatments for dementia)
  • Technology (e.g. improvements in speech to text technology)
  • Environment (e.g. optional price point for electric cars)
  • Law (e.g. effect of cash bail on low income neighborhoods)
  • National security (e.g. study of domestic terrorist groups)
  • Commercial activity (e.g. weaknesses in the supply chain)

Being specific is essential. "My work will contribute to understanding climate change" is too vague and does not show a benefit beyond an increase in academic knowledge. More specific would be "My work will lead to a better understanding of how forest management in the Pacific Northwest should change in response to climate change. This will allow us to reduce the chances of catastrophic wildfires that can devastate communities and further exacerbate climate change."

When considering impact, keep in mind that some funding agencies place high value on educational benefits, including work that would:

  • Promote teaching, training, and learning
  • Increase public engagement with science and technology
  • Enhance infrastructure for research and education
  • Broaden participation of under-represented groups
  • Strengthen partnerships between academia, industry, and others

4. Name your collaborators

For some research projects, broader impacts may largely be achieved through traditional channels. For example, new findings in inorganic chemistry are presented at conferences and published in academic journals, thereby reaching many of the people who can use that information in additional research. Even in these cases, you should name your collaborators and briefly describe what they will be contributing to the project. For example, "Two new graduate students will be contributing to the research. Dr. S.M. Lee, director of the high-resolution electron microscopy facility at nearby State University, will provide guidance on preparing the samples."

In other cases, implementing broader impacts will require the expertise of people outside your field. In these cases, it is absolutely imperative to show that you understand how the desired change can be implemented, and have already started discussions with people who can help make it happen. For example, "The decision to focus on nonverbal adults was made after discussions with T.W. Lopez, who is the programming director at the local senior center. The trial program would occur there, and county funding is available to expand the program to other centers if it is shown to be effective."

5. Use numbers to describe impact

Use numbers to describe the potential impact of your work. It is often useful to describe the number of potential beneficiaries in ever increasing circles. For example, "The trial program would occur at the local senior center with an expected 20-30 participants. If shown to be effective, county funding is available to expand the program to 10 other senior centers serving a total of 400 nonverbal adults. Additional research will determine if this method is effective for nonverbal children, including those on the autism spectrum. This could benefit the estimated 1200 children on the autism spectrum that receive education and therapy through the county.

You want the readers of your impact statement to be impressed and inspired by your proposed work, and convinced that it can lead to positive change. The affected community can be as small as a tiny school, or as large as the entire world.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.