Outreach Leaders Article

What is the impact of my research? Two questions every researcher should ask themselves

Professor Mark Reed, Newcastle University, is an internationally recognized expert in impact and the founder of Fast Track Impact. Using the latest research in the area, Fast Track Impact provides training for researchers looking to improve their impact and productivity. Professor Reed has worked with over 4000 researchers from more than 200 institutions around the world. Here, he shares the two questions that are essential to creating impact through research.

If you want your research to make a difference, there are two essential questions you must ask yourself. Without asking these questions, you run the risk of wasting hours on activities that ultimately lead nowhere. Or worse still, your efforts may lead to negative unintended consequences, harming the very people you want to help.

Who benefits from my research?

For me, an impact is a benefit. It is as simple as that. I like to ask my one-word definition as a question, because when I ask, “who benefits”, I instantly realise that there will be winners and losers. One group, in one place and culture at one time, may benefit from your research, while a different group in a different place and culture, or at a different time may be disadvantaged or harmed by the same research. Nobel prize winning physics research that saved lives by developing X-ray services also made the development of the atomic bomb possible. More recent research designed to predict personal attributes based on people’s online behavior was used by Cambridge Analytica to manipulate human behaviour to sway elections around the world.

When I ask who benefits from my research, I am instantly able to distinguish between my engagement efforts and the actual impacts arising from my research. It doesn’t matter how many media appearances I make, how many people attended my public lecture or how many seminars I run for policy-makers: if none of these people benefited as a result of engaging with my research, then I achieved no impact. More often than not, there is an impact – we just don’t know about it. It is important to ask ourselves this question though, because unless we find out who benefited, we don’t know if we were wasting our time – or worse. I may have traumatized or bored my audiences, and the people who turned up to my policy seminar may have done the opposite to what my evidence suggested. If I ask the question, who benefits, I get an opportunity to find out when things are going wrong. That means I get the opportunity to fix any problems before it is too late. And when it becomes clear that people are benefiting from my research, I can find out why, and build on my success to deliver even more benefits. There is also a good chance that those who fund my research will be interested.

Why do I want to make a difference?

The second question I believe more of us should ask is simply, why? You say you want to make a difference? Tell my why? Really, why? The answer to this question can often be more revealing than people expect.

I knew from an early age that I wanted to do something that would make the world a better place, but it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I realized the psychological drivers of that aspiration (I had very little intrinsic sense of self-worth, but maybe if I could help others, I would feel like my life had value). I think ego is a driver for most researchers, to a lesser or greater extent, depending how secure we feel in ourselves. Achieving impact from our research is often the icing on an ego-cake of prestigious publications. There’s nothing wrong with that – as long as that’s not the only reason we’re trying to make a difference. If that’s what it is all about though, there’s a good chance that we will slip into behaviours that end up using (or abusing) our positions of authority to demonstrate impact at the expense of the needs of others.

Equally troubling are those of us who discover, when we ask ourselves why we’re trying to achieve impact, that we’re doing it for our funders or institutions. There is a compelling argument that publicly funded research should generate benefits for the public. However, there is evidence that researchers around the world increasingly feel the need to embellish grant applications with promises of impact they know they will not keep. We need to be authentic, even if that means owning the reality that most of us didn’t become researchers because we want to change the world.

For the majority of researchers, the key drivers are curiosity, discovery, creativity, freedom and challenge. If our curiosity-driven, creative urge has an impact, then that’s a bonus. We don’t all need to be experts at generating impact from our research. We can collaborate with others who can do this, and each play to our strengths. The beautiful thing I’ve discovered is that when we do research from that deep place of intrinsic motivation, whatever that motivation is, we discover that there is more than one reason why we might engage with impact. You don’t have to be someone who wants to change the world to make a difference. You can be a curiosity-driven researcher and rediscover your sense of wonder as you open the eyes of children to your research. You may even get asked a question you have no answer to, but that you’d love to be able to answer (kids are good at this). Now, you’re working with people from different disciplines to answer questions that don’t respect disciplinary boundaries, finding challenges to master and being forced to find more creative solutions than you’ve ever had to find before.

Do research if you want to and do it for the right reasons. The right reasons are simply your reasons. Understand why you do research; what inspires you most about the research process. Then, from that place of inspiration, ask yourself whether engaging the outside world with your research might actually feed your soul.

Prof Mark Reed is a recognized international expert in impact research with > 150 publications that have been cited > 13,000 times. He holds a Research England and N8 funded chair at Newcastle University, is research lead for an international charity, and has won prizes for the impact of his research. He collaborates and publishes across the disciplinary spectrum, from the arts and humanities to natural sciences, and he reviews research for funders around the world. He has been commissioned to write reports and talk to international policy conferences by the United Nations. Mark provides training and advice to universities, research funders, NGOs and policy-makers internationally, and regularly works with business. He is author of The Research Impact Handbook and has trained >4000 researchers from >200 institutions in 55 countries through his company, Fast Track Impact. Find out more about his work at: www.profmarkreed.com, www.fasttrackimpact.com or follow him on Twitter @profmarkreed and @fasttrackimpact.

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