Early Career Researcher Advice Article of the Week: Jonathan O’Donnell: The effect of impact

As a research whisperer, I spend my life helping people to refine their grant applications. An important part of that is wielding the ‘big red pen of clarity’, and editing their material to help express their ideas more clearly.

You can imagine my reaction when I read ‘impactful’ in a grant application recently. I was appalled. In the Australian vernacular, I nearly choked on my Weeties. This horror appeared in an otherwise excellent application, written by an otherwise excellent applicant. We had words…

At about the same time, Tim Sherratt tweeted:

André Brett replied,

The corrosive effect of the impact agenda

Like a lot of things, the impact agenda seems quite reasonable on the surface. The government provides funds for research, and they want to know that those funds are helping society in some way.These tweets helped me to reflect on the corrosive effect that the impact agenda is having on the researchers with whom I work.

They’ve asked universities to describe what contribution their research makes to the economy, society, environment or culture, beyond the contribution to academia. All well and good, in theory. Unfortunately, some of my researchers are getting mixed messages about the impact agenda.

We already know that researchers are angry because they feel that they are being asked to lie. Jennifer Chubb and Richard Watermeyer asked 50 senior academics about the ‘impact’ section in Australian and UK grant applications. One respondent, a professor, said that “it’s really virtually impossible to write an (Australian Research Council) grant now without lying and this is the kind of issue that they should be looking at”.

However, it goes further than that. Because the air is so thick with an expectation of ‘impact’, I’m seeing more and more statements like the one that opened this article. They represent an attitude on the part of some researchers, especially early career researchers, that troubles me.

These researchers write as though they were trying to convince politicians that their research is worthwhile. They are afraid that, in the five or six years since they have finished their PhD, their research will not have made an impact. Of course, it won’t. You are lucky to be cited in the early years of your career, much less have demonstrated effect on industry or practice.

Don’t fear the bogeyman

These researchers seem to be writing for a nebulous audience inspired by newspaper headlines, policy statements and university expectations. The impact bogeyman, in other words.

Hot tip: The impact bogeyman won’t be reviewing your grant application.

If you are applying for funding from a national research council, you’ll be assessed by other researchers. Other researchers who understand what can, and can’t, be expected from a three-year research project. If the funding agency includes ‘impact’ in their criteria, they will spell that out in their guidelines. Read the guidelines.

Like all childhood fears, the impact monster disappears when you look directly at it. For example, in the latest Rules (2018) for the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Discovery Program (the scheme that I am most familiar with) ‘impact’ is not mentioned at all, in the whole 80 page document.

Elsewhere, the Instructions for Applicants for Discovery Project (DP19) grants only mentions research impact in four places (over 42 pages):

  • When it talks about the ‘benefit and impact statement’, which appears on the front page of the application.
  • When talking about career interruptions it asks if career interruptions have “impacted… your academic record”.
  • When asking for details of your academic career and opportunities for research it mentions the word ‘impact’ once (in 600 words of instructions).
  • When you list your ten best academic career outputs, it asks you to explain and justify the impact or significance of each research output.

Similarly, in its Assessor Handbook, it only mentions research impact in two places:

  • As one of five important factors to consider when assessing the feasibility and benefit section of proposals. The other four factors are: objectives and selection criteria; research opportunity and performance evidence; interdisciplinary research; and data management.
  • As one element that informs the assessment of the ‘benefit’ section of the proposal, for just one of the six schemes that they run: Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) scheme.

There you have it. In 150-odd pages, over three key documents, the Australian Research Council talks about the impact agenda six times. I’m not saying it isn’t important. I’m just saying that you need to keep it in proportion when writing your grant application.

To keep it in proportion, keep in mind Andre’s point about the difference between ‘effect’ and ‘impact’. Most research programs will have, at best, an effect on the issue at hand. Effect is defined by the OED as ‘a change which is a result or consequence of an action or other cause.’ 

To have an impact, the effect would need to be marked. That is, it would need to clearly noticeable. Once again turning to the OED, impact is defined as ‘the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another’, or ‘a marked effect or influence’.

Most research projects don’t have a noticeable effect on the outside world because research is cumulative. Research accretes over time, with each project providing another small piece of the puzzle. To try to disentangle which thread of research actually made a difference is enormously difficult. To try to predict what effect your tiny thread may have in the future is almost impossible.

Practical steps

Here are some practical ways to keep things in perspective.

  1. Read the guidelines to see how they talk about the impact agenda. This will provide an antidote to the unstated assumptions and expectations that you, or your colleagues, may be carrying.
  2. Understand your audience. If your application is going to be assessed by academics, write for academics. If your application is going to be assessed by industry, write for industry. Write for your actual audience, not the impact bogeyman. How do you know who will be assessing your application? Read the guidelines.
  3. Understand how you can help. If you are seeking to help a target population, or influence policy or contribute to the solution of a problem, talk to the people who might implement your solution. Find out what their expectations are. Understand what part of those expectations you might be able to fulfil. Be realistic.
  4. Think about change over time. What change is realistic during the project? What change is realistic within the first year after the project? How about 2-3 years after the project? Don’t go too much further than that – it is unrealistic. (Hinton et al. 2011)
  5. Think about who might change. How might things change for research participants? Who might be early adopters? Who could initiate systemic change? Have a look at Tilly Hinton’s IMPEL ladder to help with this.

Mapping out all those factors might help you to develop a sense of what the pathway to impact might be in this area, and what your contribution to that pathway might be. More importantly, it may help you to see that impact is more mouse than Gruffalo.

Originally posted in The Research Whisperer

The opinions expressed in this blog represent the opinions of the author and not those of Massey University or eSocSci except when they do not express the opinions of the author in the example of a quotation within the post. Read more. This post can be cited using this method and is reposted under Creative Commons 3.0 licensing permissions.

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