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From impact to transformation: ten essentials for transformative research

I like trying to dream big my research, but I often struggle to come up with impact goals for my research that are truly transformational. Research funders are increasingly asking us to find radical new solutions to old problems, for example tackling “intractable development challenges” and boost “transformations to sustainability”. The problem is that it is hard to think big or radical when you have been trained as an academic to think about these challenges more narrowly, in ways that will advance knowledge within your discipline.

Some recent work I have contributed to that has been published in the Journal of Energy Research and Social Science has raised a serious question about the extent to which the way we are doing research will really address current contemporary challenges. Many of the worlds’ current challenges, like climate change, pollution, obesity and mental health have directly or indirectly emerged from 300 years of scientific and technological advances and will not be addressed by the same kinds of thinking that created them. As well as existing approaches, we will need to massively scale-up use of different, more action-oriented approaches that help us learn better and faster from action and which enhance impact from research.

Research needs to move from devising to implementing solutions

Our work highlights that one of the big challenges for research is that it tends to focus on problems, sometimes solutions, but rarely on how to implement those solutions. For complex issues like climate change or health issues that require rapid, significant and major action to address them a tendency to focus on problems greatly reduces the possibilities of positive impacts emerging from research. The issue is partly because research is often considered to be separate from practice. This has led to separation of formal institutions for producing knowledge from those working on policy and practice. In this world, implementation is often viewed as the job of policy professionals and outside the realm of research, ultimately slowing down the learning and emergence of opportunities to achieve impact.

We need to value practical, ethical and political knowledge

There is also often a misunderstanding about the kinds of knowledge needed for implementation. Academia is dominated by ‘episteme’, which is teachable and abstract. Practical knowledge, however, includes both ‘know how’ knowledge (techne), such as that used to install solar panels or to facilitate complex climate negotiations, and ethical and political-practical knowledge (phronesis), which relates to the ability to know what makes a good end and a viable, morally defensible path toward that end. Practical knowledge is, however, typically embodied, difficult to articulate and often developed experientially over many years for particular circumstances or contexts. It is not easily ‘extracted’ and represented in the written epistemic form with the result that it is often not considered or included in academic research.

In short, if we want to learn how to create change or implement initiatives, work with communities, or develop better policies, we cannot do this just through epistemic knowledge. Instead we have to learn through doing, including through mistakes and iterative and innovative experimenting.

Ten things you need to get right if you want your research to be transformational

This requires much more action-oriented research where researchers are considered part of the system they study. Viewing research in this way opens up space for all kinds of possibilities, from greater involvement of non-academics in research to finding ways to include different kinds of perspectives, increasing the relevance and accessibility of the results. In order to help guide action-oriented research, our work has produced ten essentials for research that leads to transformation. These range from the focus of the research through to general ways in which the research needs to be approached:

Despite considerable knowledge about how to do action-oriented research, these approaches are still relatively marginal compared to more traditional approaches. While emphasis on co-produced research and interdisciplinary approaches has been growing, attention to this has still been limited. Major barriers still exist, including limited funding, deeply entrenched views about what counts as good research and highly self-referential ways of thinking that are supported by particular incentives and rewards. One of the most critical aspects is that many incentives are weighted to generating particular kinds of knowledge rather than necessarily to societal improvement.

Things are changing, with ever greater emphasis on societal impact. Yet this still views research to impact in a linear way, where research is assumed to come first and then generate impact. But the real world doesn’t work like this – impact emerges from many influences, and action is important for informing research. If we truly care about impact, then our work suggests that we may need to radically alter the way in which research is produced and used.

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