Estimating research impact when writing proposals
Research impact is the good that researchers can do in the world. But, it is not always easy to foresee the potential impact of our research in advance. In this workshop, participants explored research pathways to generate impact as well as approaches to estimate this impact. Reflecting on these aspects during proposal writing increases the competitiveness of funding proposals and ensures pathways are designed into the research process to maximise impact.
Throughout the SRA Workshops during autumn 2021, we have explored the possible opportunities and synergies to contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, through innovation and collaboration. Participants and organisers have shared the struggles and triumphs of successful collaborations, highlighting that meaningful interaction throughout and beyond the research project is essential to generate research impact. In this final SRA Workshop of the semester, specific guidance and tangible examples were provided to participating Lund University staff, specifically early career researchers, to involve stakeholders in the research process and integrate impact pathways in proposal writing.
The hybrid workshop took place at Lund University on 25 November 2021, coordinated by MECW and EXODIAB, as part of the workshop series arranged by the Strategic Research Areas (SRAs) and Sustainability Forum at Lund University.
Challenges of Estimating Research Impact
There is growing tension between the expectation of the profession and the time available to researchers, as a result of greater demands for research excellence, external funding, collaboration, societal impact, and project administration. Speaker Karin Aggestam, Professor at the Department of Political Science, says it is no longer enough to have a novel idea or an impressive consortium. In her experience as an evaluator, Aggestam says successful funding proposals require consideration of impact and collaboration. However, it can be difficult to estimate research impact, especially understanding the impact on stakeholders, the types of impact, and the timescale necessary to foresee impact.
During the workshop, speakers Sihem Jebari and Ronny Berndtsson presented their work with the FASTER Project – Farmers’ Adaptation and Sustainability in Tunisia through Excellence in Research. Jebari is the Project Coordinator and a Professor at the National Research Institute for Rural Engineering, Water, and Forestry in Tunisia. The Project aims to support capacity building among rural farmers to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Since capacity building was a primary goal, the project justified this research impact through careful design of communication, coordination, and project management activities.
Ronny Berndtsson, Professor at the Division of Water Resources Engineering at Lund University, says that the FASTER Project was funded successfully because the proposal was able to clearly elaborate the impact they wish to have, as well as demonstrate their capability to deliver on this impact. This suggests that estimating research impact involves understanding the influence of your research on stakeholders and the broader society. In addition, funding agencies expect researchers to justify this potential impact through carefully-designed impact pathways.
Designing Impact Pathways
If research impact is the good researchers can do in the world, an impact pathway is the mechanism or process to generate this impact. Kes McCormick, Associate Professor at the IIIEE, shared several different examples of impact pathways: workshops, podcasts, explainer videos, exhibitions, artwork, policy briefs, an online database or atlas, as well as any other contribution to inform or influence external stakeholders. These products are the outcome of processes including collaboration, translation, and dissemination. For example, McCormick is involved in producing several massive open online courses, called MOOCs. Producing such a course involves collaboration among researchers, teaching teams, videographers, graphic designers, funding agencies, among others. Research forms the basis for much of the content, which is structured pedagogically and translated into scripts. The content is disseminated via an online platform – for example, Coursera, FutureLearn, or Udemy – and information about the course is distributed via a website, social media, exhibitions, print materials, and so on.
Starting from the perspective of what motivates you as a researcher.
There are so many different pathways for generating research impact! Speakers suggest starting from the perspective of what motivates you as a researcher. From this starting point, one can identify the type of impact you wish to make (e.g. capacity building, preparedness, change in attitudes or behaviour), the type of work you enjoy (e.g. written, visual, verbal), and the stakeholders you wish to involve or influence (e.g. industry, civil society, government, citizens). Identifying your motivation, interest, and capabilities is a good starting point to design and implement effective impact pathways.
Proposal Writing Tips
Designing and implementing impact pathways requires time and resources. Meanwhile, funding agencies are requiring more emphasis on research impact within project proposals in order to be funded. For those researchers wishing to secure external finance and generate research impact, it is a good idea to integrate research impact into future proposals. Here are some of the tips provided by speakers and participants at the workshop:
- Pathways for research impact should span the project, work packages, and deliverables.
- Always consider the needs of your stakeholders to design meaningful impact pathways, for example, their preferred medium, venue for interaction, and relevant content. Simply ask your stakeholders their needs or preferences while writing the proposal, or design a mechanism for continuous dialogue throughout the project – more involvement often leads to more input or feedback, contributing to a more meaningful collaboration.
- Feasibility is important, so any impact pathways should reflect the goals of the project, the capabilities of the researcher or team, and the requested resources.
- Appropriate effort during the initial design of impact pathways in the proposal-writing process will save time and effort during implementation, and helps to set expectations among a team of collaborators.
- Additional expertise or skills are often necessary – it is worth developing a budget for research impact that includes resources for subcontractors, for example, designers, videographers, publishers, or web developers. These costs can be estimated, but better to already identify subcontractors and receive a quote for proposed work.
- Flexibility is required during uncertain times. During proposal writing, it is advantageous to conduct a risk assessment of research impact activities, and already consider alternative approaches.
- With limited time, developing content to communicate is among the biggest barriers of generating impact. Therefore, consider synergies among proposed activities. For example, having someone to take notes from a workshop can improve efficiency and form the basis for a blog or social media post. Additionally, conducting research interviews and podcast interviews are similar activities – one can see activities of generating impact as opportunities for data collection.
- Include a mechanism to track progress, including success metrics identified by the project, which can inform evaluation and continuous reporting.
- Articulate potential impact beyond the end of the project, and consider a plan to ensure this future impact. For example, develop teaching materials, interactive multimedia, or an online database meaningful for future users of your research. Additionally, advocate for the innovative potential of your research to improve existing processes, technologies, or decision-making.
While these tips are meant to support proposal writing, we all know that not all proposals are successful. If you find a proposal rejected, Aggestam suggests researchers keep polishing and resubmitting rejected proposals. One should ask colleagues and mentors for feedback, review and find inspiration from successful applications, as well as take advantage of any consultancy services or additional resources provided by your University.
This workshop was an initiative by the Strategic Research Areas (SRAs) and Sustainability Forum at Lund University, co-organised by MECW and EXODIAB.