Research Impact: pathways, cul-de-sacs and beaten tracks


We’ve had two meetings in two weeks in my Department and School on the question of ‘impact’. It has been a great topic around which to bring together social and natural scientists.

RCUK applications now require a two page ‘pathways to impact’ document.  The document is described in the Je-S guidelines as “detailing the activities that will increase the likelihood of potential economic and societal impacts being achieved.” Research councils acknowledge that applicants won’t have crystal balls to see into the future, but researchers can think carefully about the ways in which their research might have impacts (today, 2 years time, 10 years), as well as the steps they will take to ensure the maximum impact of their (publicly-funded) research.

Last year, several people I follow on Twitter chose to write about ‘impact’ – why it matters and how to do it. The LSE even have a website dedicated to the impact of the social sciences. In this blog, I want to return to these blog posts from last year – to think a little bit more about ‘pathways, cul-de-sacs and beaten tracks’ to impact.

The first is by Hilary Sutcliffe (Director of MATTER) who has written (on her personal blog) about the ‘cul-de-sac’ of knowledge that is academic research.

When people said that citations were the most important measure of an academic’s value to the University, I thought they meant ‘the most important’. Not ‘the only’.

This fixation on citations pretty much ensures a ‘cul de sac’ of knowledge because of the narrow channels of access to the information, the language used and the way the system actually penalises those who want to spend time communicating their work more widely.

We aren’t talking about co-creation here, or anything fancy, this is simply bog standard comms – making sure that useful information, gained through rigorous and effective research processes, can be used in decision making or enhance the knowledge of the people who might find it useful.

I forwarded a link to this page to a friend who completed her PhD last year. We talked about whether it depended on your career stage as to whether you can talk about ‘impact’. This partly prompted this post – which has been sitting in my drafts folder for ages (blogging guilt). I don’t think career stage should come into the discussion over whether your research has an impact, or indeed how involved you can become in pathways to impact. I was recently invited to talk at an ESRC first year PhD student conference to get people thinking about impact from the get-go. I couldn’t agree more with Hilary’s conclusion to her blog post or the ESRC’s decision to raise the question of impact early (although this does also raise a set of questions around the REF, publishing research on blogs before academic journals, Open Access – more on this in a future post too):

So for the sake of all the waste of brilliant brains; all that fantastic knowledge languishing, unread, and often unreadable, in expensive mags; all that tax payers money spent; let’s blast the end off the cul de sac and build a many branched superhighway for the knowledge to be dispersed! It would certainly help build confidence in social science to make a more significant contribution to all our lives, and be a better use of all our hard earned cash! (From Hilary’s blog)

The second blog post that intrigued me was by Steven Fielding (Professor of Political History, Nottingham) writing about making an impact (part 1). It has been retweeted numerous times and I understand why, but I also see where the comment from my friend about career stage comes into it. This is a professor talking about a BBC Radio 4 documentary.

Of course, I will be working on the documentary while teaching, finishing a book and doing all the other stuff academics are expected to do in the increasingly crazy world of UK higher education (thanks, David Willetts!). Many academics rightly resent our increasing workload and the spiralling of expectations so doing the documentary on top of everything else is a commitment not everyone can take on.

Some might think, then, that I am a lackey of The Man, doing the documentary to generate some further ‘impact’ for the REF. In fact, I’d do it without the institutional ‘impact’ imperative – although it is nice that such work is now formally recognised, rather than in A.J.P. Taylor’s day denigrated. People like me should try to make a connection with as many as possible: surely it’s bizarre that academics spend so much time producing ‘knowledge’, which they then share only with a tiny number of fellow geeks – and students?

I would however be dishonest to claim that it is a sense of duty that ultimately motivates me. I do it because (whisper it) I enjoy it: it’s great fun and I am so glad to be able to do it again.

This programme will obviously reach a large number of listeners but I am not sure how many of us lower down the ladder have the confidence to approach radio producers about a programme (**correction** if you don’t know how the process works check out Steve’s blog post) – although the AHRC have teamed up with BBC Radio 3 for its New Generation Thinkers award:

Up to sixty successful applicants will have a chance to develop their programme-making ideas with experienced BBC producers at a series of dedicated workshops and, of these up to ten will become Radio 3’s resident New Generation Thinkers. They will benefit from a unique opportunity to develop their own programmes for BBC Radio 3 and a chance to regularly appear on air.

This is clearly a step in the right direction.

The other day I met an impact manager, who suggested what researchers do is create outputs (articles, books, patents) and impact is something that may or may not happen somewhere sometime further down the road. We don’t ‘do’ impact. However what we can do is work to create the right conditions for our outputs to be picked up by individuals, communities and institutions.

So what can we do to begin getting the conditions right? Here are a few small interventions to get us started. These are not impact – they are you on the rooftop with a megaphone – we don’t know if anyone is listening. These are communication methods I’ve used and found to be successful as a cultural geographer – extending my network of contacts – although they aren’t right for all researchers all of the time. And that there are more participatory pathways to impact that will feature in a further blogpost. Also if you’re reading this you may well already do the following…

  • Social media: set up a Twitter account or Facebook page for your research, or you as a researcher. I am @DrHG and I’ll follow you. Use this as a means to create a network of ‘stakeholder’ contacts. This certainly works in the area of nature conservation…and others, I’m sure!
  • Blogging and websites: set up a blog (other blogs are available). These sites are increasingly user friendly and like Twitter and Facebook can be updated on the move via a smartphone – you can also link your online presence(s) so they all speak to each other. I’d also say blogging helps to develop an accessible writing style. For me, this site gives me a presence online that I can refer people to regardless of the institution I am working for at the time – which at early-career often means you are moving between universities and other places.
  • Talking shop: becoming involved in organisations that are relevant to your research – becoming a member of a society that relates to your work, providing the opportunity to share your research interests and findings, as well as help identify new sources and areas of study. A good example here is some work I’ve been doing with an enthusiast group and then the opportunity to present that work at their annual conference. Another way is to write something for their blog or newsletter. Also think about involving project partners in your research, those individuals, communities and institutions that might be interested in helping you frame and shape your research, as well as act on your results.
  • *most importantly* having an open attitude: whilst the pressures of the recent REF, teaching loads and everything else means that sometimes we end up thinking only in our ‘silos’ and that we are more than likely going to present our work at our disciplinary conferences only, publish in journals in our particular fields and talk with those who are most relevant to our research – some of the greatest rewards, which often aren’t  ‘measures’ en route to promotion etc., are to be gained when seeing others beyond disciplines, universities and traditional measures of academic merit value and most importantly enjoy our research. It means being open to surprise, serendipity and going off the beaten track – time for a plug for my paper with Tara Woodyer over at Material Sensibilities on enchantment (if you’d like a copy please do drop me a line in the comments box). I think both of the bloggers mentioned above demonstrate this attitude.

Whilst we can’t all have (or even want) radio shows, tv programmes, popular books, the list goes on,  we can do our best to ensure that our research reaches and involves those who in some cases fund us, but also challenge and cheer us on with our research – we may also find that the response we get makes us better researchers and improves the relevance of our research questions to our audiences. Some people have talked about academia on the one hand and the ‘real world’ out there on the other. As a geographer, I don’t think we can talk of separate spheres – yes, institutions, education, funding etc. means we work within particular structures and are governed in particular ways, but our inquisitiveness about the world is something we share.

So, let’s see impact (or rather creating the conditions for it) not as a box to be ticked but – for some – a way of researching to be embraced.

P.S. see also recent special issue of ACME on The Impact Agenda and Human Geography in UK Higher Education

4 thoughts on “Research Impact: pathways, cul-de-sacs and beaten tracks

  1. I’d hoped my post (there’s no part 2!) would have demystified the process of doing a Radio 4 documentary. It’s not that hard (the un-sung producer does much of the work) but you do need an idea that appeals. After that most of the skills you need you should already possess as a result of being a researcher and teacher; and the experience – which is a bit scary the first time – will help enhance them. It’s not for everybody – an inclination towards amateur dramatics does help – but being a relatively junior academic is NOT a bar to doing it.

  2. Thanks very much for this Hilary. There are so many aspects of this to wade into aren’t there. I’ll leave for another day the whole area of involving stakeholders to improve ‘impact’ as part of the research process, and stick with communicating research outputs, which is really what this is all about.

    I’m interested in the view of “the ‘impact manager’, who suggested what researchers do is create outputs (articles, books, patents) and impact is something that may or may not happen somewhere sometime further down the road.”

    Let’s ignore patents, which is another story and focus on communications strategy. I can see the logic of his view. Is it really the job of an independent dispassionate researcher to try to positively influence stakeholder opinion by promoting their work to change behaviour and ‘maximise’ its impact? That’s the job of NGOs and those types isn’t it?

    But on the other hand, if you’ve done some important science or social science (maybe on flooding related issues for example(!), is it not incumbent on you to ensure it reaches the people you think need it most? Isn’t that the whole point of research in many fields – to inform action and add to the body of evidence about a subject? Is it evidence if it isn’t there to be considered?

    Which then leads to the thorny issue of ‘maximising’ impact. The examples you gave are correct, and useful. But they can be used in the passive way that the impact manager describes, or you can create a campaign of communication which ensures that the learning from your research reaches the people who, in your view, could benefit.

    Much as it may be an anathema to you, I think Researchers need to develop a strategic communications plan for your work – who are the policy makers, what departments in what companies would benefit, which public interest groups or members of the public would find it useful or interesting? You would perhaps develop a stakeholder map of those who are important and a plan of how to reach them through various means.

    This doesn’t have to be all done by you. Universities need larger, better funded energetic comms departments with experience in a wide range of communications disciplines and they need to be incentivised to help you.

    You can bet it all kicks in when Malcolm Gladwell or Richard Dawkins does some research – why not you!

    But as I go on to say in my other blog, if that counts against you in your career path, why on earth would you do that except because you think it is important. The Universities themselves have got to do more to support you.

    BTW, an interesting ‘by product’ of this is that if your research isn’t that interesting, or useful, or important and doesn’t add anything to the world, you will know about it sooner rather than later!

    • Thanks, Hilary! I am particularly struck by your comment: ‘if you’ve done some important science or social science (maybe on flooding related issues for example(!), is it not incumbent on you to ensure it reaches the people you think need it most? Isn’t that the whole point of research in many fields – to inform action and add to the body of evidence about a subject? Is it evidence if it isn’t there to be considered?’

      The same goes for the data we gather and if it languishes un-transcribed, in a file somewhere, as a research diary – then what was the point? Whilst I know we can’t publish everything and a lot goes into gathering information around an issue and then making an argument from these various parts – there is something to be said about what happens to the material that gets left behind. Indeed, the time it takes to publish (our own deadlines and publishers), as well as perhaps the pressure to chase the next big grant means we don’t have time to make the most of everything we do gather. PhD theses are a case in point. If we don’t publish from them – then they just sit there. Two bound volumes on a library shelf or in storage or on our own bookshelves.

      One way in which my research group at the RGS-IBG are tackling this is via their monograph series, we are interested in publishing shortened PhD theses to ensure they do see the light of day.

      Blogging as we go is another example. See my friend’s Dr Innes Keighren’s historical geography blog here.

      For me, I feel it is my duty as a researcher and as someone who cares about my participants and the material I gather to ensure the research reaches those who might benefit from it. I’ve suggested several ways of doing this – building long-term collaborations with external organisations has been one way for me. The collaborative doctoral award has led the way here for many of us.

      Timing, career paths, funding – all play a role. I have found that the more we talk about our experiences of knowledge exchange, transfer, co-production (call it what you will) beyond academia, the more positive the response, and indeed the more willing people are to give it a go.

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