More and more, scientists are required to highlight the (potential) impact of their work. Independent of what we think about the increasing focus on research that results in immediate and tangible effects, we think it is important for scientists to be aware of the bigger picture of their research. In this week’s Skills Weaving Blog, we will therefore take a closer look at academic impact. What is it, which levels of impact can be distinguished, and what can you do to maximize it?
What is impact
In our context, impact can be defined as the effect or influence of something on a situation or person (from Cambridge dictionary). Basically, impact is the whole of consequences that results from our effort and actions. There is a wide range of impact, which can be illustrated by the following example: A doctor can make direct contributions to improve the health of individual patients (large effect on a small group), while a scientist can make a minor contribution to novel therapies that may eventually benefit many patients (small effect on a large group). There is no objective measure by which we can grade impact. In this respect, neither of the example above is better than the other; all impact can be relevant. What is important is to be aware of the diverse types of impact that you can achieve, and how you can maximize the impact in a given situation.
Diverse levels of impact
Without trying to draw a comprehensive picture, we would like to highlight a few levels of impact that can be considered in the context of academic research.
Scientific knowledge: Your research will contribute to the advancement of knowledge. Even the most minor of findings may be the missing link in some other researcher’s hypothesis. As science traditionally focuses on positive outcomes, it can be worth to consider the impact of publishing negative outcomes (i.e. avoid unnecessary endeavours or duplications).
Applied knowledge: Research may result in tangible applications, either by developing something completely new, or by adapting existing methods. Maybe you develop a new therapy that will improve the quality of life of patients, or you come up with a new model for conflict resolution that can break a political impasse.
Economic impact: As a consequence of your research, you may have identified more cost-effective approaches that can lead to major savings. Another type of economic impact comes from the potential for commercialization, either through licensing or by founding a business.
Education: Your impact on education can be very broad, by designing and implementing new teaching programs and practices, or rather at the individual level by supervising and training individuals to become experts in your field of research. Either way, you empower the next generation or researchers, innovators, policy-makers, and leaders of industry.
Personal: Particularly in the context of career advancement grants, you can consider the impact of a project on your personal development. How will it help to acquire new skills, increase your reputation, expand your network, and advance your future career?
How can you maximize your impact?
We can broadly distinguish three steps in maximizing the impact of your research.
First, you should be aware about the different levels of impact that you can achieve. With the suggestions in this Blog, you can start to make a basic impact assessment. If you want to push your impact analysis to a higher level, you can perform a PESTEL analysis (on which we will share more later).
Second, maximum impact comes from excellent research. Aim for the best approach to address your research question and be precise and accurate in your experiments. Discuss outcomes with other and improve the quality of your efforts and actions.
The third aspect comes from reach, as your impact will be limited if it does not reach the end user. An analogy would be the world-class piano player who never leaves the practice room; nobody will never experience the amazing compositions. A stakeholder analysis and communication strategy can be of great value when trying to widen your reach.