Influence for influence’s sake? The merits of a two pronged approach for research impact

17 May 2012

The London School of Economics´ Impact of Social Sciences Project, whose objective is to help academics to increase the scope and reach of their research by having more influence on public policy, has published a Handbook on Maximising the Impacts of your Research. This Handbook is a compilation of the initial findings of a comparative analysis focused on 120 academics from several social science disciplines, and provides advice on how to achieve maximum visibility, both within the discipline and externally. There are many other such handbooks and manuals.

However, Mel Bartley, Director for the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, argues in a post on the Impact of Social Sciences blog that it is problematic to view scientists as a group that works in isolation from the real world. In fact, the reason science exists, she says, is because it has always found a way to be useful and financially viable:

The notion of scientists as a Brahminic group divorced from everyday concerns may be true of some individuals but as a description of how science is done it has little foundation in social reality. Disciplines wax and wane appear and disappear in the academy, and this happens as a result of intense activity by scientific entrepreneurs.

Bartley believes that there is interest in learning how to maximise research impact because some research traditions have lost their initial purpose and now need a justification for their continued existence. She argues that a two pronged approach is needed, not only to understand the way research can influence policy, but to reflect on the implications and consequences of this influence. She utilises the notion of the social problem process, divided in stages, which begins with calling attention to a problem and then asking for something to be done about it. Demand for action, however, is held at bay by a process of enquiry on the problem, which creates a market for new knowledge.

The Impact of Social Sciences Project is hardly the only one in its field. There is also the Canadian Research Impact, which provides knowledge mobilisation services to universities, government agencies and communities; Research Councils UK, which is focused on improving support mechanisms, evaluation and sharing best practices among their researchers; the Becker Library Model for the Assessment of Research Impact, providing a framework for tracking biomedical research impact; and UC Berkeley’s Research Impact Initiative, which offers a monetary reward for those academics that will allow their work to be free to all readers.

In the developing world, several organisations are also working hard to understand how as well as to influence policy. How will opinions like Bartley’s affect the way they approach the relationship between social science and practice?