Outreach Leaders Article

Insights for Impact: Q&A with Saskia Gent

Saskia Gent, from Insights for Impact, specialising in empowering researchers to maximise the impact of their work. She was kind enough to share her thoughts and insights with our Editorial Director, Emma Feloy.

Hi Saskia! Can you give us a quick introduction to yourself and Insights for Impact?

I’m Saskia Gent and I run a consultancy called Insights for Impact. My business supports researchers, university departments, and research projects to understand and achieve, communicate and share the real-world impact of the work they do. Our clients are typically universities – often university research offices – and in the last four years, we’ve worked with 25 different institutions in the UK and also overseas.

Before working in impact and founding the consultancy, my career spanned journalism, market research, and business development. These disciplines all have a core thread of narrative building running through them, and they all look to connect cause and effect.

What led you to specialise in impact?

After working for a dozen years after graduating in English, I went back to university to study for a masters in migration policy at Sussex … and stayed. I found my niche, helping the researchers to understand how their work directly impacted on the lives of migrants and their communities. Some of that was grassroots work in Bangladesh using performance and some of it was talking to the Home Office. That experience really made me see the challenges of trying to develop evidence-based policy and the advantages of developing diverse approaches. From there, I took a role as a comms officer for social sciences in the mid-2000s, a position that evolved to cover impact development. I went on to lead the 2013 REF impact submission for the University of Sussex across all schools, after which I set up and ran the Research Office’s impact team. Insights for Impact opened for business in late 2016.

Many researchers do the work they do because they want to make the world a better, more efficient, or more equitable place – in their area of expertise. But they don’t always understand how their work can do this, or how to report on it. I find it incredibly rewarding to help the research community identify these opportunities and understand the changes their work can create.

Why is impact so important for researchers?

Impact is what motivates researchers to do the work they do in the first place. They’re trained to identify, research, and answer the world’s toughest questions, but until recently, relatively few had ever been trained to understand or report on how their work effects real-world change.

Impact also matters because it can help researchers develop new questions and more productive lines of enquiry. Related to this, properly-planned impact is increasingly the key to unlocking more, diverse, and better-resourced pots of funding. Under the right circumstance impact can advance researchers’ careers on their terms.

Are there common mistakes you see being made around impact?

Perhaps the hardest thing for researchers to understand is that impact is not something that they do themselves. That’s a common misconception and failing. Rather, it’s what others – individuals and organisations, governments and businesses – do as a result of or informed by their research. This means researchers have to develop and maintain good relationships with non-academic partners to understand how things are changing in the world and the role their research can play in shaping and changing things.

Another mistake we often see is that many researchers still mistake impact for dissemination. Publishing, holding briefings, giving keynotes – any forum or medium a researcher uses to communicate their findings and conclusions from their research isn’t impact per se. It’s dissemination. This is often a challenging leap we need to help researchers to make.

Finally trying to do too much. Researchers are already hugely stretched and over-scheduled. To be effective at generating research impact you need to have a clear plan, which means you can focus on the important things and not get distracted or try to do everything.

What are your top tips or advice for a researcher who is keen to increase the impact of their work?

First, work out what you like doing. Not the subject matter, but how you want to effect change and so have impact. Do you want to be an outsider or an insider? Do you want to criticise the status quo from the outside and so catalyse campaigners to call for change, or do you want to understand the workings and shortcomings of the current system from the inside and bring about change from within? Establishing that can help researchers choose which impact pathway they should take.

To effect meaningful change, researchers need to establish and sustain meaningful dialogue and relationships with people and organisations outside of academia. If you don’t understand the real-world context in which your research may inform action and change, it’s next-to impossible to spot the opportunities for impact.

Lastly, researchers need to be persistent and learn from their mistakes. Effecting real and sustainable change is like product innovation and systemic evolution – it doesn’t just happen, it can take a long time, and you need to incorporate learnings from what doesn’t work in order to build frameworks that do.

What changes do you hope to see in the impact landscape over the next 5-10 years?

I’d like to see more attention paid to the culture of impact than the measurement of impact. The seven-yearly REF is clearly a huge driver of the impact agenda in universities. But impact isn’t and should never be considered to be a tick-box exercise or a hygiene factor. Universities have a much broader social mission than this narrow approach allows, and this can be met by a bigger-picture understanding of the value that researchers can create using impact outside of the REF cycle.

I’d also like to see impact gaining more ground as a truly collaborative, interactive endeavour. Some of the best examples I’ve seen in recent years have been those projects that have spawned multi-disciplinary, multi-agency teams, rather than those that rely on individual impact superstars. It’s when these superstars become part of a collaborative network that the impact can be amplified.

What’s on the horizon for you and for Insights for Impact?

There are lots of training opportunities for those interested in impact, but over recent years I’ve found that this is very much more sustainable when supported by a coaching model. When researchers can – regularly – take timeout from the hurly-burly of day-to-day research and reflect, consciously, on how impact is shaping their own research journey. To address this unmet need, I’ve developed a coaching model for working long-term with researchers to empower them to build their impact confidence and help them over the hurdles and setbacks that inevitably crop up during their impact journey. I’m very much looking forward to rolling this out in the months ahead.

I’m also involved in a really interesting project, analysing how institutions have developed and are evolving their impact strategies. Together with our research partners Fast Track Impact, we’ll be publishing a white paper on our findings and recommendations over the next few months. There’s more detail on the Institutional Research Impact Strategies Analysis Project in my recent blog here.

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