Q&A with Professor Mark Reed, Newcastle University, United Kingdom
In this interview, Professor Mark Reed, an expert in socio-technical innovation, shares some of his insights on the effective communication of research in achieving wider impact, what impact should really mean to researchers and why relationships are so important.
Mark Reed is a Professor of Social Innovation at Newcastle University, United Kingdom and is based at the Institute for Agri-Food Research & Innovation and the Centre for Rural Economy in the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. He is a transdisciplinary researcher specialising in social innovation, research impact and stakeholder participation in agri-food systems. He trains researchers around the world on how to embed impact in their research through his company Fast Track Impact. Professor Reed is Handling Editor of Conservation Biology and is on the Editorial Board of Land Degradation & Development.
- What do you think is the most powerful tool researchers have at their disposal in communicating their work?
I think many researchers haven’t realised the power that they can have on social media. 99% of people on social media are just recycling old material, mainly from mass media sources, but we’re in the tiny minority of people who are actually generating new content based on the knowledge we acquire in our research. Now that an increasing proportion of our research is open access, social media is a great way of making our work as widely available as possible. If we can then frame our work in ways that make it accessible to people too, then we have the potential to inject new evidence into debates that can inform opinion and decisions. People don’t just believe what they read on social media – they choose which sources to trust. By being linked to a university brand, as researchers we have instant credibility, which often gives our voices greater weight in these debates. People are hungry for knowledge and they are looking for it on social media. I think we should be doing all we can to make our knowledge available and accessible in the places where people are looking.
- What do you think is the most common thing researchers are neglecting to do in maximising the impact of their research?
The most common thing missing is a systematic consideration of who might be interested in or use our research. Most of us have a fairly good idea of the groups who are most likely to use our work, and it is easy to just go with the usual suspects and react to whoever gets in touch with us or expresses an interest. But I think we can be much more strategic and efficient with our time, and achieve far greater impacts if we really ask ourselves who we should be focusing our attention on. Most of us start by looking for beneficiaries of our research and that’s a good place to start. But what about groups who might be disadvantaged or lose out as a result of our work? If we asked ourselves who these people were at the outset, then we might be able to identify them before we negatively affected their lives, and we might be able to do something to reduce or avoid those negative impacts. But there are two other questions we rarely ask ourselves, which are just as important: who has the power to block my research and prevent me from achieving impact, and who has the power to enable me to complete my work and achieve even greater impact? If we know which groups or organisations are most likely to block or enable our work from the outset, we can work to get them on side, and hopefully find ways of overcoming their objections and working with them, and in some cases join forces with them to access greater funding, resources and expertise to do more and better research with greater impacts than we would otherwise been able to achieve.
- What is your definition of “impact” in the context of academic research?
For me, impact is the good that researchers can do in the world. There is an implicit value judgment in there, that we are seeking benefits, but that means we need to reflect on whether there may also be unintended negative consequences, and do everything we can to avoid those. Impact is often conceptualized as beneficial change, but we may have just as much of an impact if our research prevents a damaging or harmful change from occurring. The Research Excellence Framework in 2014 identified significance and reach as two core components of impact that may be used to judge the relative quality of different impacts. However, the majority of impacts submitted to many Units of Assessment in REF were instrumental in nature, and I think we need to broaden our conception of impact a little. I think there are five types of impact we can define:
- Instrumental – impacts on public policies and services, health and welfare impacts, economic and commercial impacts
- Capacity building – learning, skills, confidence, social cohesion, new institutions and groups organised
- Conceptual – knowledge and learning, enjoyment and inspiration and other changes in understanding
- Attitude or culture change – institutional and organizational change (e.g. structures, priorities), changes in values and behavior, impacts on public discourse and cultural life
- Networks – enduring new networks, capacity for future collaborations and willingness to engage again in future
- Why should researchers be concerned with their impact?
In my experience, there are three main motivations for researchers to look at the impact of their work. First, there are people like me who (perhaps somewhat idealistically) want to make the world a better place, no matter how small that contribution might be. Achieving impacts from our research keeps us motivated and gives us a reason to ask more relevant and challenging research questions. Second, there are people who want to be recognised for their expertise and leave a legacy that they can be known for. Achieving impacts from their research raises their profile, and opens new doors that give them increasing influence at scales that will leave a lasting impression. Third, there are those who are simply curious about the world around them. For them, working towards impact broadens their horizons, provoking them to ask questions they could never have dreamed of asking before.
- Why are relationships so important to ensuring impact?
For me, empathy is at the heart of the impact agenda. Without being able to put yourself in the shoes of those who might be interested in or use your research, it will be impossible to understand what motivates, concerns and drives them, and to deliver research that has meaning or can help them.
- You recently critiqued the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in a Times Higher Education article on how it frames universities and researchers. What do you see as the main problems with researchers rushing to attain impact and ranking highly in REF?
Because empathy is at the heart of any lasting impact, there is a real danger that extrinsically motivating researchers to achieve impact will encourage some of us to engage with stakeholders for our own career progression and our institutions’ prestige. Once the project is over or the next REF scores are in, or when things become challenging, there will be little motivation to persevere with this work, and these people may feel used by us.
I work with an NGO and it is surprising how researchers will approach me a matter of days before a grant deadline to request a letter of support, with a fully formed proposal that cannot be influenced or changed in any way, and expect to get a piece of paper that unconditionally praises and supports what they’re trying to do. In one case, a project invited us to a workshop with all the stakeholders we’d been working with for years to get on side. We had never heard of them before, so figured that the workshop was probably just something they’d committed to in their pathway to impact, but because they didn’t know the politics of the issues they were planning to tackle in the workshop or the relationships between the various organisations they had invited, we ended up working as closely as we could with them to try and minimise the damage they could do. As we suspected, no-one ever heard from them again after they’d run their workshop and ticked their impact box. Most people who attended the workshop felt like it had been a waste of their time, but although we had wasted more time than many on it, at least we’d been able to brief the team well enough to prevent any lasting damage. Had teams like that spent time working with the NGO and policy community on these issues before they started trying to run workshops and achieve impact, they could have used their time and resources far more effectively and avoided wasting people’s time.
For me, the best cure is to build both capacity and commitment to real, lasting impact across the research community. In the training workshops I run, I don’t just try and equip researchers to take a relational approach to impact; my goal is to inspire and enthuse researchers to want to invest the time and emotional energy it takes to achieve real impact.
- The next REF has been delayed by one year to assess its efficacy. What changes would you recommend?
I don’t think it is possible to make significant changes to REF this time round, and at this stage in the REF cycle, it probably wouldn’t be fair to change the goal posts. However, I’m proposing research at the moment that will critically examine the social construction of impact in the UK, with a particular focus on policy impacts which are plagued by issues of timing and attribution. If funded, our hope is to work closely with HEFCE and other stakeholders to consider how we can broaden our conception of impact to encompass all of its richness.
Thank you for the interview, Professor Reed!