Understanding the evolution of “research impact”
From working with university researchers on innovation projects, I’ve noted two trends related to “research impact” that affect researchers — particularly those starting out. I hope these observations help researchers understand the current changes that academia is experiencing. And although my experience mainly comes from supporting scientific researchers — I observe similar dynamics happening within the Arts and Humanities field. After you’ve read my thoughts, I’d love to hear your feedback on Twitter — I’m at @eoingalligan.
First — innovation activity such as industry partnerships and spinouts has grown dramatically and now operates as an industry. A great example is the creation of the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership (UIDP), which is an association of managers from both universities and industry that seeks to promote best practice in partnerships. With many grant applications demanding an industry partner as a co-applicant, such best practice with industry has become crucial for the university sector to achieve funding.
Second, as researchers experience these changes, I observe a significant number struggling to understand why this is happening. Some time ago, impact was framed by how universities interacted with the external world, whereas it has evolved and now measures a commercial focus in research. Writing a grant application with a company is not enough. Instead, the application needs to explain the possible commercial ‘outcomes’ of the research.
I’ve discussed this issue with many PhDs and postdocs who I feel have not received sufficient guidance. Recently, I wrote about how perception can affect a research career. I highlighted that Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe were key programmes that changed the definition of impact to include socio-economic outcomes. At the national level, many funding organizations followed this example, incorporating impact criteria and terminology into their funding instruments. From Dutch universities to Irish funding organisations — it was clear that impact was here to stay.
Lets consider what triggered this situation. In the last 15 years, the volume of PhD students has increased substantially whereas tenured positions decreased. A report in 2010 by Royal Society highlighted that only 3.5% of PhD graduates will proceed to a research position. It suggested there was a need to manage PhD students’ career expectations and to highlight the range of opportunities. Such analyses began to question the purpose of the PhD qualification and how it prepared individuals.
A related issue is how public sector funding is assessed for cost-effectiveness i.e. what is obtained for every Euro or Dollar that is spent on research? With public budgets being squeezed, politicians and industry begun to challenge the purpose of research and how it linked to a nation’s ability to innovate. In parallel, industry faced the dynamics of Globalisation. With companies achieving lower costs by locating operations in cheaper regions, margins became tight. Industry faced a challenge to maintain a sustainable competitive advantage. Enter ‘open innovation’ — a new way for universities and industry to work together. Facing intense global competition, companies began to work with a group of elite, highly entrepreneurial universities to access disruptive technology created from university research via partnerships. Venture capital investors then proposed to create spin-out companies that could mature such technologies — and then sell the spin-outs to industry.
So how should early-career researchers react? I would suggest some networking within the funding sector can broaden perspective on these new impact criteria. For example, a post-doc could seek to learn what funding organisations expect from university-industry grant applications. What do they expect the company to do after the research project? Is the goal to increase innovation projects in the company or to employ PhD graduates? Once the research phase of the project is finished, how should the application propose the research data is used within the company? Some funder have published statements, others reference impact directly in their funding guidance.
A second step would be to connect with the innovation offices across their university campus, such as research support offices, business development units or entrepreneurship hubs. I have observed that researchers can be hesitant in contacting “business” offices. They do not feel that they are an “innovator” due the nature of their specific research work. Instead, I suggest contacting these offices to gain insight on how innovative thinking could be incorporated with future grant applications. Some applications could focus on radical, new research ideas, whereas others can focus on the development of earlier research projects that succeeded. These offices employ staff that are close to impact activity, understand the business terminology and can highlight stakeholders that are actively promoting impact. To be clear — the goal at this stage is to reflect on how the funding landscape is changing and to learn what is needed to adapt.
A third task could be to share such knowledge within a professional association, such as a PhD or postdoctoral association at the university. Could the association work with the innovation offices to create a network of industry contacts for junior researchers? What training is available at the innovation hubs for researchers that do not wish to focus on a spin-out? I feel these types of questions could enable the professional association to start planning how to address these changes for early-stage researchers and manage the consequences of research impact.
I’m concerned that impact criteria has confused researchers — especially those starting out. Maybe I’m wrong? But my discussions with researchers so far provides me with sufficient evidence that this is a meaningful area of discussion. Please feel free to reach out and let me know your thoughts.