Monday, 29 September 2014

Thinking afresh about impact and how it's achieved

School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development Director of Research Jeremy Phillipson reflects on the constant requirement for "impact" - both from the research funders and from that person who wants to chat to you on the train.


We hear so much about “impact” from research now that it threatens to become part of the wallpaper for academics.  But there are occasional situations that really bring it home.  Many of my colleagues will, I’m sure, have faced that situation of sitting on a train when someone asks you what you do and you admit you’re a scientist at a research institution.  And you just know that this will lead to a series of tricky questions, which in all probability will include a rant about taxes paying for researchers and their value and relevance. Of course, we respond by pointing to impacts of research, and how we aim to achieve these by engaging with the people who can benefit.  Research has to justify itself but being put on the spot can be uncomfortable.  It’s true that we can tell the person on the train that things are changing. Success in getting a research grant increasingly depends on producing a convincing Pathways to Impact Plan, setting out how the research will engage industry, professionals, policy makers and others, and how they will benefit. But, like anything else that is prescribed by research funders it’s very easy to make producing those kinds of documents an automatic part of the process.  There’s a danger that writing the plan becomes an end in itself, rather than a means of achieving that all important “impact”.


So I have been trying to think anew about ways of achieving real impact in the past few days, prompted by a presentation I would be giving at a workshop in Peterborough.  The event was being organised by Landbridge, the knowledge exchange network that we have launched here in AFRD, and for this particular workshop we were working in association with the Agricultural Industries Confederation, the Association of Independent Crop Consultants and the Home Grown Cereals Authority.  Landbridge aims to bring together farm and land advisers – including veterinarians, agronomists and crop advisers, ecologists, land agents and many others – with researchers for mutually beneficial knowledge exchange. This is a particularly timely endeavor as the Government’s strategy for agricultural technologies and plans for new Centres for Agricultural Innovation rely heavily on translational research and require effective mechanisms for knowledge exchange.


But how do we achieve fruitful relationships?   When Philip Lowe and I were directing the Rural Economy and Land Use programme from here in Newcastle we didn’t start from the usual assumption that the researchers would do the science then feed it to the people who needed the results. We decided that we needed to take a step back from focusing on impact as an end product and look more closely at the process of research.  We also realised that scientists needed to draw much more on non-academic sources of expertise. There are many experts who are not scientists. And outside their own fields, scientists may be quite inexpert. However, we emphasise science as a mode of thinking and we pay much less attention to expertise: the skilful deployment of knowledge, skills, experience and other technical capabilities. But expertise is what underpins innovation and problem solving.  Relu was based on this philosophy of expertise exchange. A primary objective of the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme was: “to enhance the impact of research on rural policy and practice by involving stakeholders in all stages”. Stakeholders were involved in the overall design and governance of the programme, shaping its scientific direction and knowledge transfer strategy, and also in the formulation, assessment and conduct of its individual projects. Overall, more than 4000 stakeholders were involved across 90 projects. From this experience we distilled the following principles of expertise exchange.


The first principle is to engage stakeholders throughout as active partners in research, to help establish its focus, priorities, conduct and dissemination. We found that practical efforts of upstream engagement could lead to real benefits, in terms of the quality, relevance and take-up of research.


The second principle is that expertise exchange relies on an inclusive approach, whereby everyone who is interested in a problem should be engaged in its resolution – that includes public institutions, organised interests, industry, and others across the public, private and third sectors.


The third principle is that expertise exchange can occur at any time during the life of a research project, through varied mechanisms. This can include formalised knowledge transfer based upon intellectual property contracts, as well as soft knowledge exchange, including informal networks, and the transfer of warm bodies between research and practice.


The fourth principle is that expertise exchange must be reciprocal between researchers and stakeholders. Both must be open to new perspectives, otherwise the relationship can become rather one way. But critically the opening up of the research process to stakeholders recognises the contribution of their expertise in the focusing, conduct and application of research projects.  


Landbridge epitomises the learning that came out of the Relu programme.  Within research concerning land use and the rural economy, farm and advisers are key elements in this process of knowledge exchange.  Farmers and land managers rely on them for their expertise.  They don’t just include agronomists but also professions such as vets, land agents, ecologists, and many more.  Events like the one we hosted in Peterborough are the living embodiment of knowledge exchange and the principles outlined above.  But the event was also a reminder to me that as researchers that we have to consider afresh, with each new research application, how we can build knowledge exchange into the process and how enriching that process can be for the research and for achieving that elusive “impact”.


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