“Are you ready?” That is what I wanted to know from the Early Career Researchers who joined the first ever live #ECRchat I hosted on Twitter recently – one of a series of fortnightly virtual get-togethers connecting an astonishingly diverse group of ECRs, from geneticists to classicists. Ready, that is, to embrace the research impact agenda. How well, I asked, did they feel prepared for generating impact from their research? And what did they most need to make it happen?
Some of the early answers sounded a little glum. “Not even remotely prepared”, came one response. Others clearly felt they were a tiny cog in a vast machine, finding it hard to see how their research in a niche area might help bring impact to the greater whole: “I’m so little in the big bad world of academia”.
But soon enough, the enthusiasm I have seen in ECRs during my impact training courses began to shine through. “I see external impact in the work my wife does with helping spinal patients re-learn sexuality and improving hospital teaching”, offered one participant from Sheffield. Others began to look for “creative, fun ideas” for outreach activities. Public engagement, so the general consensus, is a good thing – as long as you conceive it in such a way that it actually leads to impact.
At this point, one participant highlighted one advantage ECRs have over many of their more senior colleagues: their greater familiarity with social media. Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs are all channels which can help generate “real-world” impact at comparatively low cost.
And that was another big theme – the cost of generating impact, through outreach activities or otherwise. “I think money is more of an issue for ECRs with ideas but temporary or no jobs”, offered one participant from London. And she was not alone. Very evidently, there is a discrepancy between stated aspirations and real life here: key funding bodies have made it clear that they want new researchers to acquire the skills and expertise needed to maximise the impact of their own research, and the Concordat for the Career Development of Researchers explicitly aims to improve the quantity, quality and impact of research.
So when should ECRs start thinking about impact? “Early in the design phase”, offered one participant from Edinburgh. Quite – for impact is not just important for the next REF, but also for grant applications. Each funding application to one of the research councils now needs to include a Pathways to Impact statement, showing that the applicant has at least thought about the potential benefits of his or her research in the “real world”.
For enthusiastic web surfers with hours to spare, many insights about impact can be gleaned from RCUK annual reports and university websites showcasing REF2014 impact case studies. For those who prefer a training workshop, Bulletin offers a wide range of short impact skills modules which can be tailored to each university’s needs.
One great advantage of workshops is that (not unlike #ECRchat) they offer interaction with people from other areas – and unexpected creative input: some of the most rewarding courses I have run have been those where ECRs from Arts and Humanities backgrounds came up with brilliant impact ideas for their peers in Engineering or Medicine – and vice versa.
All in all, my first foray into hosting #ECRchat left me with the impression that a genuine interest in generating impact, and enthusiasm for embracing the task, are out there in spades. What ECRs need is for university research offices, learning and development leads or research deans to seize the initiative and give them a leg-up. And this may be in their own interest: investing in their ECRs’ impact skills now may well prove to be a key milestone on the road to the next REF.