Overheads is dedicated to current issues in research funding and policies from the perspective of research support.
Researchers’ task extends beyond the confines of academia; it involves creating a lasting impact through their work. Impact, in this context, refers to the enduring change or benefit that research brings to society. This could manifest as improvements in health, the advancement of knowledge and innovation, addressing global challenges, or enriching cultural understanding. However, achieving impact is not instantaneous, nor is it a solitary endeavour. It necessitates a complex interplay and collaboration among diverse stakeholders, including fellow researchers, practitioners, policymakers, industry players, media, and civil society. In our impact workshops, we always try to remind researchers that as daunting as creating impact may sometimes seem, approaching the task from a new perspective helps, and can relieve some of the pressure off the researchers’ shoulders.
It is crucial to recognize that researchers are not the sole architects of impact; rather, they serve as enablers. The role involves ensuring that research findings are accessible, comprehensible, and pertinent to those who can utilize and extend them. While a researcher may sow the seed, the growth, nurturing, and harvesting of the impact require the collective efforts of others. Through the careful use of tools and methods, researchers can proactively plan for impact and effect positive change in the world.
Making impact without losing focus
Although the notion of impact may initially appear formidable and demanding, especially when imposed by external funders or evaluators, it is crucial to recognize that pursuing impact is not merely about appeasing others or checking a box. Instead, it presents an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the world, tackling issues that resonate with not just the researchers but also others, while simultaneously enhancing the reputation of a researcher. Impact also serves as a chance to learn from others, expand one’s network, foster collaboration, and elevate the quality and relevance of research.
To strategize for impact, various tools and methods can be used as assistants. One such tool is the Theory of Change (ToC), a framework facilitating the mapping of the logical sequence of your research's impact pathway. This pathway initiates with the resources employed in research and culminates in an impact that contributes to addressing society's significant challenges. Using ToC helps to identify potential users and beneficiaries of research, determine how to reach them, gauge the potential impact, and allocate time and resources effectively.
In our impact work, we have used ToC as a tool and theoretical background to demonstrate the interplay of different impact actors. The spheres (control, influence, interest) presented by ToC help to describe the process and roles of different players. The names of the spheres are quite self-explanatory: in the sphere of control, you have control over things like your work, selection of partners, and use of resources. Sphere of influence refers to things you cannot control, but can directly influence, such as your partners in research projects or immediate stakeholders you actively communicate with. The sphere of interest is beyond your control and refers to society at large. But by being strategic about the things you can control, you can help pave way for interest of different people, institutions, or organizations.
Strategic positioning in the sphere of control is a key element of creating impact: acknowledging that impact is not solely within the researcher's control can be liberating, even a lightbulb moment. This has been the feedback in some of the workshops we have given to researchers. Researchers can focus on what they can control and influence, such as the quality of their research, strategic partnerships, and effective communication, rather than feeling overwhelmed by factors beyond their control. Being strategic with partners, methods, and support highlights the importance of intentional collaboration. By choosing partners wisely, employing effective methods, and seeking the right support, researchers can enhance the potential for meaningful impact. This strategic approach aligns the research process with broader societal goals.
Researcher's main job is to conduct good research. This notion reinforces the foundational importance of scholarly work. This core responsibility forms the basis for any subsequent impact and underscores the idea that impactful outcomes often result from the intrinsic quality of the research itself.
The idea that good research can lead to impact automatically underscores the link between quality research and positive outcomes. When researchers focus on producing rigorous, relevant, and insightful work, it inherently contributes to the potential for broader societal influence. Focusing on excellence encourages researchers to channel their energy into achieving excellence in their field. By concentrating on producing high-quality research, researchers can indirectly contribute to societal impact. This excellence becomes a driving force behind the transformative potential of their work.
Balancing realism and aspiration is important. Recognizing that impact is not guaranteed but emerges from a combination of factors allows researchers to balance realism with aspirational goals. While impact is a desired outcome, understanding its complexity helps researchers set realistic expectations and navigate the journey with a sense of purpose. Recognizing that researchers are not responsible for everything in the impact pathway can relieve them from unrealistic expectations. The pressure to single-handedly navigate all aspects of impact can be daunting and understanding that impact is a collective effort can foster a more realistic and sustainable approach.
In summary, the idea is, that researchers can navigate the pathway to impact more effectively by concentrating on their core expertise, embracing strategic collaboration, and understanding the multifaceted nature of the impact process. This approach can indeed be a lightbulb moment, providing researchers with a clearer perspective and a more sustainable approach to achieving meaningful outcomes.
This blog was written by the creators of the Impact Helper, an online guide and tool to impact:
Kirsi Ojutkangas, Research Funding Specialist, Research and Project Services and
Elina Rossi, Research Support Specialist, Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering
AI was used to help finetune the text.