Position Paper: Maximising the Impact of Research

Impact can take many forms, but crucial to them all is a close working relationship between those undertaking the research and those who will benefit from it. The government should concentrate on the exchange of tacit knowledge through launching and expanding a portfolio of schemes (such as exchanges and mentoring) and designing infrastructure (such as shared facilities) that would enable this to happen.

This position paper is based on our response to the government’s proposals in its R&D Roadmap. Our full response can be found here.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) defines impact as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’.

For us, there is a single underlying principle that is important for all types of impact: a close working relationship – and ideally co-creation – between those undertaking the research and those who will benefit from the findings of it. 

Reed et al (2013) set out the key principles underlying this. They include appropriate and systematic representation of stakeholders in research where possible, the development of long-term relationships, two-way dialogue, flexibility, monitoring, reflection, refinement, and a legacy beyond the initial funding. 

Alegre et al (2018) go further and distinguish between the exchange of explicit and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is formal, codified, easily understood and clearly transmitted; tacit knowledge is nuanced, subtle, complex and relational. Their empirical study – the first of its kind –  concludes that ‘the use of tacit knowledge makes value creation and innovation more likely.’ 

Explicit knowledge is still important, they suggest, ‘but results show that its use is more connected to operational issues and is, therefore, less likely to create value. Again, managers [should] pay special attention to tacit knowledge and, therefore, to the human side of innovation.’

We would, then, encourage the exchange of tacit knowledge as an essential foundation for maximising impact, encouraging innovation, and using knowledge to its greatest effect. 

To do so the five paradoxes of knowledge exchange (Mabey and Zhao 2016) need to be addressed. These were identified through their study of ATLAS, ‘the world’s largest R&D collaboration.’

  • The more knowledge is formally managed, the less likely effective knowledge exchange will occur
  • The more democratic knowledge‐exchange is desired, the more intentional leadership is required
  • The more knowledgeable professionals are, the less likely they are able to lead
  • The more pervasive the technologies for knowledge exchange, the more isolated knowledge specialists can become
  • The more informal that knowledge exchange is, the more likely it is that discrimination will occur

The authors’ suggested solutions to these may be difficult to replicate on a large scale, but that does not mean that they shouldn’t be attempted. Intractable problems require solutions that are both simple in principle but complex in practice.

The investment needed for this depends on the ambition underlying it. It may be significant – such as designing infrastructure that encourages spontaneous, serendipitous conversations and a sense of community – or relatively modest, such as launching and expanding schemes that facilitate exchange, mentoring and embedding of researchers and stakeholders in each other’s environments.