Will ‘research impact’ affect my work?

There are two recent trends affecting junior researchers. The first is the immense growth of university partnerships and innovation activity as a practice and as an industry.

There are a number of key variables that have connected that have triggered this growth that I’ll try to reflect on in a moment. However — the second trend is one that I feel demands reflection by researchers and university management teams. A key segment of junior researchers are not prepared to understand this ‘research impact’ language. Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe were key programmes that had moved the definition of impact to socio-economic outcomes. Impact continues to be discussed by a broad range of stakeholders such as Dutch universities and Irish funding organisations — impact is here to stay.

So, a following question for a young researcher to ask is will impact affect my research?

Let us consider the key variables that triggered this situation. Over the last years, the volume of PhD students has increased. At the same time, the number of tenured positions in academic has steadily decreased. In the UK, a report in 2010 by Royal Society highlighted that only 3.5% will proceed to a research position. It set out an aim to manage PhD students’ career expectations and highlight the range of opportunities. Many stakeholders began to question the purpose of the PhD and if the training prepared candidates for a likely career in industry.

A related issue is cost-effectiveness across global public sector funding. With public budgets being squeezed, stakeholders (they pop up often…) begun to ask the purpose of academic research and its relation to industry and a region’s ability to innovate. With this discussion rolling, industry faced an alternative issue. Globalisation was exploding. With companies achieving lower costs by locating operations in cheaper regions, margins became tight. Industry faced a challenge to maintain sustainable competitive advantage. Enter ‘open innovation’. Facing intense global competition, investors and companies began to work with a select of elite, highly entrepreneurial universities and create partnerships to access disruptive technology or invest in the leading spin-out companies. Governments around the world began to take notice and implement such activity in their region.

This may be a lot to take in. And the debate is still raging. So what can researchers do? Some local networking across campus can broaden perspective on what is happening locally. A first step can be to obtain input from their local funding stakeholders on their perspective or policy on impact. Some have published statements, others reference impact directly in their funding guidance. An example could be that grant applicants apply together with industry co-applicants. Funding organisations demand this to ensure that the implementation of the research outcomes are managed on industry professional standards — and not managed by the university team. Thus, the outcomes of the grant application are not only the outcomes managed by the researcher. Nevertheless, the researcher would need to build up a network of relationships with industry contacts to prepare for such activity.

A second step would be to connect with the innovation offices across their university campus, such as research support offices and knowledge transfer offices or entrepreneurship hubs. These offices contain staff that are close to impact activity and can highlight stakeholders that are actively promoting impact. To be clear — the goal at this stage should be to obtain knowledge.

The final step should 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? Such type of questions could enable professional associations to create a plan for junior researcher to understand and manage the consequences of research impact.

Written by Eoin Galligan, Business Development Manager, University of Aarhus

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