Creating “impact” from research, beyond academic impact, has always been important in some disciplines and for some researchers. But it has become more valued from a strategic perspective in Australia. In late 2015, the Government announced a focus on national Engagement and Impact. The government advised universities that, as part of the ERA assessments, they will assess the economic, environmental, social, and other benefits of research [1].  This has led universities and other research institutions to increase efforts in encouraging and documenting impact beyond academic. 

Here, we focus on how you can have impact in your own research. For more strategic and institution-focused advice, we refer you to www.arc.gov.au.   

What is impact beyond academia? 

 

Impact is defined by the government as “the contribution that research makes to the economy, society, environment, or culture, beyond the contribution to academic research” [1]. The ARC distinguishes between research engagement [1] and research impact [1][2].  

IMPACT BEYOND ACADEMIA

It's important for researchers to think about the role they're playing in [the] impact pathway and how they can  collaborate with people in order to better enhance their impact.

Research knowledge that contributes to economic benefits

Research knowledge that contributes to health and well-being

Research that contributes to

public services and societal functions

Research that contributes to the environment

Research that contributes to world views, cultures, and human understanding

Why Impact Beyond Academia Matters 

Impact beyond academia matters in order to satisfy multiple higher-level stakeholders, but has a range of other important benefits:  

  • Impact can make your research work feel more meaningful and enhance your job satisfaction. Most researchers find it motivating to think that their research makes a difference to the world.  

  • Engagement and impact activities can add variety to your job, and help you to develop new skills, which can broaden your career options. 

  • Having impact can boost your reputation, and lead to more research opportunities.  

  • Demonstrating impact can be necessary for obtaining funding (which is important in a world in which research funding is getting tougher). 

  • The quality of your research can be improved by involving stakeholders outside of academia. 

  • If your research is publicly funded, it is reasonable to expect that these public funds should ultimately benefit the public in some way.  

  • Using evidence from research in decision-making will almost certainly help to make the world a better place.  

 

Several of the ARC Laureates and Centre Directors focused in their interviews on the importance of impact beyond academic. Scroll down to hear why these women see impact as important, and how they have impact.  

How Can You Increase Your Impact Beyond Academia? 

 

The type of impact you will be able to have will depend on your research – different disciplines, areas of research, and types of research (basic, applied, etc) all have different forms of, and potential for, impact. For example, it might be more straightforward to generate direct impact if your research involves developing a new manufacturing process, whereas your might impact might be more indirect if your research is in the humanities.  

The type of impact you want to have will also depend on you and your strengths and preferences. For example, for some people, doing TED talks and media interviews will be an exciting and enriching part of their work. But other people will prefer to have their impact in less extroverted ways, such as by creating a high profile website or by working behind the scenes with policy makers. 

Your opportunity for impact might also depend on your career stage and level. If you are an early career researcher with a young family, the time available for impact might be very different compared to a senior laureate researcher, for example. 

With these caveats in mind, here are some tips for increasing your impact.  

Plan Your/ Your Team’s Impact  
  • Ask yourself the “so what? question”. Challenge yourself to identify who can benefit from your research. In essence, this means asking “who in the world needs what I study?”.  

  • Understand who decides how research is used in your field – that is, who are the relevant decision makers? This might not be the same as those who benefit from the research. For example, whilst patients might benefit from a new medication, the decision-makers will potentially include drug company representatives, GPs, hospital procurement staff, and health officials. 

  • Create a plan for impact. It is unlikely to just ‘happen’. Envision what type of impact you might have, create a plan, set specific goals, and then take steps to make it happen. 

Actively Engage Relevant Stakeholders Outside of Academia 
  • Build relationships with people outside of academia, such as NGOs, businesses, policy makers, consultants, communities. Rich networks will help you to understand what matters to your stakeholders, as well as identify opportunities for engaging these stakeholders.  

  • For some research areas, it is important not only to ‘disseminate’ your research to people outside of academia, but also to actively involve external stakeholders in identifying the research questions and approaches. 

 

Build Your Skills 
  • Improve your communication and research skills.  When communicating to people outside of academia, you need to be able to craft your message to appeal to these stakeholders. Rigorous, peer-reviewed research is important, but often not enough – you need to be able to ‘pitch’ your research in a catchy way that is meaningful to the audience. Learn how to pitch your research to different audiences.  

  • Build your ‘influence’ skills (go to our page on this topic). 

  • Recognise that your research might be political. This doesn’t mean you should become partisan, but it means being aware of the political dimensions of your topic. 

  • Participate in training about impact, eg communicating your research to external organisations; commercialising your research. 

  • Read about impact on the ARC website and beyond. The UK has been strategically focused on impact for some time, and you will find plenty of resources on websites such as the Economic and Social Research Council. 

 

Take Steps and Keep Track of What You Do 
  • Find ways to disseminate your research beyond academia (twitter, linkedin, the Conversation, Ted talks, start a blog, create a newsletter, etc etc).  

  • Consider making your publications ‘open access’.  

  • Measure and record your engagement and impact. This can seem tedious, but it is likely that “demonstrating impact” will become more important for research careers in the future. If you manage a team, create a simple system for recording team member activities and impact outcomes (e.g., doing public talks, meeting with industry, engaging in public debates, etc).  

 

Help To Build A Supportive Environment 
  • If your university or research institution currently does not provide workshops and guidance on impact, lobby them to do so!  

  • If there is no time or support in your job for impact, talk to your head of school or dean. If your leaders are not thinking about how to support impact, they should be. 

  • If you have an idea for impact, but not sure it makes sense, talk to people who are good at impact and ask for their advice.  

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