Reflections on Impact

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about impact. The ideas in this post have been brewing for a while. But got a bit solidified this week because we were visited by Professor Mark Reed. Mark has done some great sustainability research with impressive impact, and has published on the topic of impact through research. I encourage you to look at his website. Mark gave a good seminar, and as a group we then followed this up with some in-depth discussion. The seminar included ideas for incorporating impact into research, with innovative ideas on how to do so. For me, this resulted in many thoughts, including these on the impact discourse; forms of impact; the role of our limits in impact; and finally, my own personal recommendations of impact for happy researchers.

** Important note: These thoughts are only prompted by talking with Mark and the group this week, and are in no way to be considered a response to, or a criticism of, anybody’s work! **

The Impact Discourse

Having spent time in the UK higher education sector during the last REF round, I am very aware of a particular framing or discourse as to what counts as impact. It feels slightly as though we are being asked to change the world through every piece of research we touch. For those of us who have engaged in-depth with a particular problem in a particular place, and often found that these problems are shaped by a much broader political economy, it can be difficult to really find a solution and make it happen. Especially in a short project. Alternatively, we understand a small component of a system, and so can’t really advocate for a solution that is applicable to that entire system.

However, pressure to have impact and global applicability often seems to lead to authors trying to make large-scale policy recommendations or to be concerned with inputting their science into the policy arena. I agree that we should fully disseminate findings in appropriate ways, but (and as noted by the new editor of conservation letters), not all science has policy relevance. And nor should it necessarily. Indeed, high profile UK academics have criticized the current focus on ‘impact’ as constraining innovative science.

However, as sustainability scientists, I think many of us are motivated by certain desires to make things better (whatever better may be) in addition to being fuelled by pure curiosity. And therefore the vast majority of us would like to feel like there is a purpose to what we are doing. And the purpose is how I consider impact in my own research.

**Interesting note: One of the researchers here (Dave Abson) said that he actually preferred to do no harm, rather than strived for impact. I thought this was also a nice stance.**

Forms of Impact

Research Process Impact

I think we should celebrate the impact we have as a result of being academics. We should seek to maximize the beneficial aspects of these impacts, by being good colleagues, mentors, students, and stakeholders in a research location.

Impact comes through teaching and supervision/participation, in the research community. For example, I think I have impact when I work with a colleague on their methodology, sharing my experiences with them. I have impact when I share case study experiences in a classroom, and motivate a student about a previously unknown issue.

Impact comes locally in research study locations, as a result of just doing the research. For example, I perhaps raise awareness with a community, or demonstrate that the world is aware of a problem. I have impact when I show a group of mining engineers that social-environmental scientists aren’t yoghurt-knitting tree huggers. I have impact when I bring together diverse stakeholders, and provide a forum for all to air their views and discuss for the first time.

Research Results Impact

Arguably, in a transdisciplinary, iterative project, impact from research results is also part of the research process. However, our results often have implications for how stakeholders in our research problem could act. I think we need to think hard about who this is, and therefore who our audience is and where we should be aiming to have impact.

For example, in my research outcomes might be recommendations for how a Hungarian municipality can alter their drinking water management approach. My impact here should be at the municipality level. I can also have recommendations on how the public health authorities communicate with the municipality; and how the national ministries organize their drinking water improvement programmes. In which case my impact should be to the public health authorities and the environment ministry, respectively. From this particular study, I also contributed to discussions around the EU’s democratic deficit… but I cannot use my single case study finding to suggest how the EU should change their decision making procedures. Instead I publish, and intend that it contributes to the knowledge of someone with far more expertise in this than I have.

The role of our limits in impact

As highlighted above, sometimes findings from multiple researchers and projects need to be put together to be ‘policy-relevant’ and to create realistic solutions. Maybe as individual scientists we can’t do it all. Indeed, there is a whole area of research on knowledge brokers and boundary organisations about bridging between research and policy. Sometimes as impact-aware researchers, we should be investigating how to contribute to existing structures and organisations, instead of trying to re-invent the wheel with our own impact approaches.

I think as scientists we also need to be honest and self-aware around what we don’t understand. I don’t expect all ecologists (for example) to know how EU policy-making and governance works. But often, ecologists might like to think about where they try to feed their findings. There is not a single decision-maker, and not all information is relevant for the same kind of decision. Thinking about where information might be used should guide where we seek to intervene. But this is a 2-way criticism: the physical scientists should draw on their governance colleagues, and as governance researchers, we should get better at showing our relevance to our physical colleagues (maybe we should see it as a form of impact).

My own personal recommendations on impact for happy researchers

  • It’s OK if you can’t change the entire world tomorrow (yeah, I feel guilty about it too, but lets try not to).
  • Celebrate all forms of impact – with your colleagues, your research area, and through the relevance of your findings.
  • Appreciate those who impact upon you and your work.
  • Once you have recognized the impacts that you have, seek to enjoy and be good at those, targeting your efforts to be effective.
  • Be honest about what you can’t do, and work with people who know what you don’t so you can work together for impact.
  • Be honest about what you can do, and seek out those who might benefit from that so you can work together for impact.

About Julia Leventon

Research on governance and systems change for sustainability. Head of Department of Human Dimensions of Global Change at the Institute of Global Change Research of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Impact

  1. Great list of ideas. It seems obvious on reflection that to have impacts we have to be involved with others. Properly communicating research results gets tied up with all the detail of doing the research well, analyzing, writing and editing, proofing, re-editing and so on. Trying to keep the audience in mind adds to the difficulty. I think the science community does a fairly good job of accomplishing these objectives, most of the time.

    Being a mentor and a good collaborator are also very important and I appreciate how much emphasis you’ve given these here. I might also add that one can have significant impact through being a good neighbor. And here I mean neighbor in an almost biblical sense. Taking time to hold a door for a stranger carrying an armful of packages, sharing a smile with a stranger as you exit the elevator, volunteering in the community, coaching youth sports. The folks in your world who are regularly seen as warm and friendly – they have impacts far beyond the simple interactions of everyday life. Heavy time commitments to non science related activities are not what I’m advocating here. But we do spend time in the community to commute to work, to take care of governmental interactions, traveling and so forth. Incidental time if you will. Being a pleasant neighbor in all these interactions has both positive effects for the immediate public environment and reinforces one’s default behavior and style so that interactions with fellow scientists and policy makers (those we wish to influence… have an impact with) go well. First impressions are important for a reason. A jerk with an outstanding piece of evidence will have a much more difficult time making an impact Altruism still exists for good reason. If caring for those around us was a bad idea, evolutionary theory suggests it would disappear.

  2. Pingback: Linking transdisciplinary sustainability research with governance | Sustainability Governance

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