Demonstrating a specialism for research impact is an increasingly sought after attribute for academics, research adjacent staff and growing numbers of impact professionals. Drawing on work carried out to design a course in foundational knowledge for research impact, Ged Hall and Tamika Heiden explore three dimensions of research impact expertise.
Having a combined total of 20+ years in our professional lives, we could give you the short answer, but that would be the academic writing style that Jonathan Wolff jokingly described:
For context, back in 2019, Ged co-authored a chapter called ‘Uncertainty and Confusion: the starting point of all expertise’ in the book ‘Research Impact and the Early Career Researcher’. The chapter emphasises that the notion of what a researcher is constantly evolves. These changes can happen systemically, through things like the ‘impact agenda’, and through each individual researcher’s career as they take on new responsibilities e.g. becoming a Head of School, etc, giving regular cycles of uncertainty and confusion.
The chapter also noted that McAlpine et al. (pp.125-154) viewed that evolving identity through 3 lenses or challenges: intellectual (normally a proxy for expert), networking (appropriate social networks that grow and change through time) and institutional (having the right infrastructure and culture). These challenges and cycles of uncertainty lead to a high degree of imposter syndrome in academia (as discussed in a recent book review on this blog).
The Oxford English dictionary defines expert as ‘a person who is very knowledgeable or skilful in a particular area’. So what knowledge or skills does an ‘impact expert’ need? Bayley et al. described a framework for knowledge mobilisation and impact competencies comprising 80 competencies across 11 domains. When we consider the breadth of what is meant by research impact (economic, social, cultural, health, well-being, policy, etc), we must also take into account the myriad contexts or systems (also constantly changing) that these competencies need to be deployed within. Adding those ‘badges’ of knowledge to the 80 areas we have already mentioned and the journey to being an ‘expert’ becomes an arduous one across all three lenses.
The Oxford English dictionary defines expert as ‘a person who is very knowledgeable or skilful in a particular area’. So what knowledge or skills does an ‘impact expert’ need?
For anyone in a researcher or a research adjacent role (see Sarah McLusky’s great podcast) that wants to be effective in developing research impact, we recommend establishing a core foundation that encompasses both theoretical and practical learning. The theoretical being part of the intellectual lens and the practical likely to come from the networking and institutional lenses.
Thankfully universities and inter-institutional bodies are starting to recognise this multi-dimensional challenge and are investing in resources and culture change at both the institutional (research impact roles and funding) and sector levels (e.g. Research Impact Canada, Knowledge Equity Network, etc). Those of us who work in this space recognise how important sharing and collaborating really are to effectively generate research impact. Given those many competencies it is not surprising that no one person can do it all. Fortunately, the international research impact community is incredibly generous in sharing knowledge and collaborating, evidenced through seminar series like the University of Auckland’s Impact through Culture Change and the University of Kent’s Next Generation Impact sessions and, we hope, through our own work (Tamika through the annual Research Impact Summit and Ged, and colleagues, through the Research Culture Uncovered podcast).
Those of us who work in this space recognise how important sharing and collaborating really are to effectively generate research impact.
This collaborative approach is why when we had the chance to work with 21 universities and a range of brilliant impact researchers, practitioners and professionals to build the Research Impact: Creating Meaning and Value programme we jumped at it. We knew the experience would improve our own intellectual capabilities, our networks and our own institutional resources. Which means that we have learnt as much as we have helped our collaborators to learn. We also knew that this level of openness, sharing and collaboration was needed to generate a learning resource that would help those new to research impact to develop their foundational knowledge.
How then does anyone build on this foundational knowledge to become an expert in impact? The answer is simple to state and hard to implement: it is teamwork and continual learning. The team needs a huge range of different knowledges (theoretical and practical) and the ability to share, think, act and reflect from the many different perspectives implied by those knowledge positions. Research impact and the expertise to deliver it cannot happen without it.
There is a high degree of complexity in building these teams because they need to cross different boundaries, such as disciplinary and organisational ones. This is sometimes called radical collaboration and such teams are necessary because research impact is a socio-technical problem. Whatever the technical knowledge(s) required, they all need to be connected, mediated and mobilised through people.
Teamwork sounds simple enough but requires commitment and time to build strong relationships. Time however, is the scarcest resource in academia, so building teams is a big ask. This highlights another tip, focus on the types of research impact that you really value. By you, we mean the singular people who make up this team and the negotiated purpose of the team itself – this value-based approach is the essential glue that holds you (singular) together and sustains the commitment that is needed to drive change.
impact expertise is a collective property of the team and not of one individual
To answer our question, impact expertise is a collective property of the team and not of one individual. Identifying as an impact expert could be considered presumptuous, even arrogant. The concept of ‘an expert’ is unhealthy in a truly open and democratic research system. This is why we continually look for opportunities to collaborate, so that we can keep learning and building the right team, with the right expertise, for the right impact challenge. Our 20+ years of collaborating and being part of brilliant teams, means that we can, from our two positions (Ged inside a university and Tamika outside), stimulate the right attributes in those teams, which are innovative thinking, problem solving, strong determination (perhaps stubbornness) to find solutions, and an authentic desire to engage with people and organisations who hold those different knowledge(s). If you seek to become an impact expert alone, then we expect your uncertainty and confusion will never dissipate.
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