What is stopping you generating impact from your research?
Researchers are under more pressure today than ever before to demonstrate the economic and social benefits, or ‘impact’, of their work. But we have been trained how to do research, not how to generate impact. This means many of us feel unprepared and out of our depth when we think about working with people who might be interested in our research. It is hard to know where to start. Putting out a press release doesn’t usually do much. Even if the story is taken up widely, knowing how to convert media interviews into real economic and social benefits is a whole different thing.
We live in an increasingly networked world in which academic collaborations are growing in size and disciplinary diversity. However, there remain many important barriers that prevent us from putting our knowledge into practice. Putting aside issues of funding, politics and other external barriers for a moment, I believe that the greatest barrier is us.
When I train researchers, there are two things that come up time and again. The first is that researchers are trained how to generate and test new ideas, but not how to communicate them or put them into practice. Yet researchers are increasingly expected by governments and other research funders to demonstrate tangible impacts from their work. The second issue is that many researchers are genuinely intimidated by the prospect of doing research with rather than to or for people who are interested in their work. It is hard enough working out who might be interested in our work, let alone having the confidence to actually connect with them.
Of course, it is easier for some of us to generate impact than others. A researcher once told me, pointing at a picture I’d shown him of a sunset over a bog pool, “it’s easy for you - you’ve got a sexy research topic”. Well, that was the first time I’d heard that particular adjective used about a peat bog. Although I love bogs, I have to admit that they do have a bit of a public image problem. So, I was pleased that the social media campaign that the image came from was convincing someone. Even if you imagine that people will perceive your research as unintelligible or boring, there is usually someone somewhere who cares about some part of what you do, or there is some way of making it interesting or useful. Sometimes it is a journey you can take in a few simple steps, and sometimes it is one that takes years. However, to date I have yet to meet a researcher who doesn’t find the journey incredibly rewarding, no matter how long it takes.
For some researchers, it is the final goal that motivates them - changing policy or practice, licensing their patent, or changing public perceptions. For many, the journey itself ends up being just as rewarding. I know lots of researchers who grudgingly started engaging with people who were interested in their research, and who then discovered that those relationships led to new collaborations and funding. Those projects led to new discoveries, which in turn fuelled the sense of curiosity that first brought them into research. One project I led ended up bringing in as much funding from industry as the original grant, and that enabled us to increase our sample size and do more rigorous research. It eventually led to a whole new body of research that we couldn’t have envisaged when we started the work, which has become career-defining for me. Of course, there are researchers who don’t believe that we should have to justify our existence by evidencing our impact. And of course, pure, non-applied research has equal value and is vitally important. But whether we like it or not, those who fund research (mainly taxpayers) increasingly want to see tangible impacts from it.
As I have conducted further research into the effects of the impact agenda, I have also noticed growing disquiet about some of the negative unintended consequences of incentivising researchers to generate benefits for society from their work. One civil servant told me “I’m fed up of being called up by researchers who want to have an impact on me when I’ve got a job to do”. I have witnessed researchers telling stakeholders how they plan to “use” them to advance their academic careers.
Researchers interviewed for some of the papers I’ve published have explained how they have adapted the research they do as a result of the impact agenda, prioritising more applied work and in some cases compromising research quality. In countries that reward institutions for their impact, intrinsic motivations for working with publics and stakeholders are increasingly being ‘crowded out’ by extrinsic motives, leading in some cases to game playing. At its best, game-playing gives undue credit for impact. At its worst, game-playing uses publics and stakeholders as pawns in games of personal and institutional competition for scarce funding and reputational rewards, undermining public trust in the academy.
The political roots of the impact agenda continue to fuel suspicion that it is an extension of neoliberal political agendas to marketise the academy, only valuing research in narrow, instrumental terms as a return on public investment. Combined with the rise in managerialism in the academy, some feel imperatives to achieve impact are yet another threat to academic freedom.
I believe that all of these concerns are valid, and they fuel my desire to get this book into even more people’s hands.
Instead, through Fast Track Impact, I want to appeal to people’s intrinsic motives, and present a vision for an impact agenda with the needs of people and society at its heart. The roots of the impact agenda are far deeper and more ancient than any neoliberal plot to hijack impact for political ends. We need a new breed of grass-roots leaders, who are passionate about making a difference for the right reasons, and who can inspire others to follow in their footsteps. Impact, ultimately, is about long-term, trusting, two-way relationships. Some of these relationships might lead to impacts, but others might not. The point is that researchers need to be in this for the long haul, rather than dropping partners as soon as the project is over, or as soon as it becomes apparent that it won’t help generate impacts we can report.
I want to reconnect researchers with the concept at the heart of the impact agenda: empathy. If we don’t do this, wider society’s cynicism of research and researchers will only grow further. If we do, we have the opportunity to achieve change on an unprecedented scale. Put simply, research impact is the good that researchers can do in the world. What is the good you can do?
I think it is easy to forget the privileged position we are in as researchers. We have the latest research insights and evidence at our fingertips and (crucially) we have the knowledge to be able to critically interpret and use what we learn. Yet, without realising it, we hide these insights in impenetrable language, on inaccessible bookshelves, out of reach of those who need our knowledge most. The American women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) wrote, “if you have knowledge, let others light their candles from it”.
With the advent of open access publishing, research is increasingly available online. However, available research isn’t necessarily accessible research. We still have a tendency to use language to erect walls around our candles, so others outside academia or our own discipline can’t see the flame, let alone light their own candle from it. We need to take down the walls, one piece of jargon at a time, if we want to communicate our research effectively.
But often that is not enough. We still have to draw people close enough to our work to actually see the insights, appreciate their relevance, and turn them into knowledge they can use. Typically, this means we have to cradle the flame and carry it to people, rather than just hope that people will be drawn to the light. Rather than simply disseminating information, we need to actively engage with those who are looking for new insights, understand their needs and work with them to co-produce new ideas that can actually shed light on real-world issues. Some of the most beautiful candles can be instantly extinguished by a gust of common sense when we take them out into the real world. But if we take this chance, we might just hit on an idea that catches on like wildfire.