Getting to grips with research impact
It was shortly after starting my PhD at the University of Reading in September 2017 that I realised the importance of research impact. I attended a series of workshops during which the Global Development Research Division’s impact team conducted a number of exercises designed to get researchers thinking about the impacts of their work on society.
My first impression was that this focus on research impact was results- or end-driven. The question was very much centred around: what will be the impact at the end of this research project? What impact can the findings of this project have? I felt uneasy that this was a narrow and unrealistic understanding of impact, and that in order to understand what impact is and where it lies, it is important to ask why impact is important.
Perhaps impact is about the potential of our work as researchers; it is about the contribution of our work to the world in a way that it makes a positive difference. This difference however might lie in different places and not only at the end of our work.
What constitutes a positive difference is also something not to be taken for granted, for different people might have different understandings of what is ‘good’ or ‘positive’ in their particular contexts or for the wider world. We also must carefully think about the cost at which such ´positive impact’ takes place. If our thinking is results-driven or ends-based, we can easily forget about the process by which the research takes places and the potential impact that lies there.
I have recently started the fieldwork stage for my PhD on two small islands in the Maldives, and it becomes increasingly clear that some sort of impact is inevitable. It is important to be aware that this impact is not inherently good, and could indeed be negative on the communities and the people with whom we interact.
As researchers we must think about impact, not only in terms of the findings of the research, but also in the much earlier stages of designing a research project and carrying it out. In particular, we must explore what impacts arise from our research and methodological approaches. To do this, we need to learn from those that have been researched and their experiences of the process. We must learn what is important to them, and that withdrawal is always an option, because without good impact in the methods and process, the potential impact in the results cannot be justified.