Methods: A case study design was used to examine four programs of research in each of three fields (aged care, disability, and child protection). In-depth interviews were conducted with leading social work researchers about outputs (direct products of research, such as publications and reports), engagement (interaction between researchers and end-users outside of academia, for the mutually beneficial transfer of knowledge, technologies, methods, or resources), and impact (the contribution that research makes to the economy, society, culture, environment, or quality of life). Twelve case studies of social work research were prepared using a standardized template. Analysis involved theoretical coding using concepts from the literature and in-vivo coding to understand how participants described processes of engagement and impact.
Results: Different types of research collaborations and engagements with research end-users influenced change in three areas: legislation and policy; practices and service delivery; and the quality of life of community members. Engagement and impact were intertwined, often because changing policy discourses and raising hidden social issues prepared the ground for subsequent more direct impact. Likewise, academic and non-academic impact were intertwined as research rigor, trustworthiness, and academic credibility were seen to leverage influence. Research methods did not determine impact; both qualitative and quantitative approaches could be influential. Impact accumulated through programs of research; single studies were rarely decisive. Engagement helped policy makers and practitioners to frame problems as well as design solutions. Researchers noted the lack of a “straight line” between research and policy and practice outcomes, recognizing multiple stakeholders and knowledge claims operating alongside research in the policy process. Interdisciplinary research had value in accessing and influencing different audiences.
Conclusions and implications: Research aiming to address inequalities must consider how to achieve engagement and impact. Theoretically, the findings broaden understandings of how research is used in policy and practice, the types of research that are valuable, and the iterative relationship between engagement and impact. While social work is well-positioned to demonstrate impact given its applied nature, both instrumental and less tangible impacts should be counted. The research highlights the differences between discovery and engagement models of research impact. It shows the benefits of collaborative, developmental research designs that incorporate long-term engagement from the problem formulation stage to dissemination and implementation.