Research impact: a security net in disguise

In my last post, I implored you to think about how you could have an impact on the wider non-academic public with your research. At this time of year, this issue has more relevance than you think. Let’s explore why this is, then look at some examples to get your imagination firing with ideas.


‘Tis the season

Lately, I’ve been concentrating on clients in one of two situations: those responding to ‘rebuttals’ or ‘rejoinders’ on fellowship and project grant proposals for national funding schemes, and those in the final months of writing up their PhD. Both situations raise well-founded uncertainty about employment prospects as a researcher and ‘what to do for funding’ to continue their research.


While there are a number of ways we can look at this situation, the option of converting your expertise into public-friendly mediums or forms, as I described in my last post, can a) lead you to non-traditional research funding streams and/or b) tide you over during periods of precarious employment. These funding streams can come from lots of directions – consulting fees, speaking engagements/contracts, patents or royalties, corporate or philanthropic investment.


How’s that?


Because in some way, your work scratches an itch. And whatever the direction the funding streams come from, they start with your converting your expertise into a relevant and usable form for the wider public.


Let’s take a look at what I mean…


Fired up for funding

Alain de Botton abandoned a PhD in French Philosophy to write books, make documentaries and give TED talks for the general public such as The Consolations of Philosophy (also a BBC documentary series). These works draw on ancient philosophy to reconcile everyday troubles, such as feeling envy over someone else’s success, or coping with unpopularity or a broken heart. How Proust can change your Life sold over 2 million copies in the US and UK.


Art historian Sandrine Voillet is another example. Voillet created the BBC TV mini-series Paris, and the accompanying book Paris: A Cultural History of the World’s most Romantic City. Voillet has created accessible resources that educate and entertain audiences about a city of world renown, whether we want to travel to Paris or are a student of French language and culture.


Examples from the health and medical sphere include Dr. William House’s invention of cochlear implants, or Professor Fiona Wood and scientist Marie Stoner, who together developed a method to treat burns and reduce permanent scarring: ‘spray-on skin’ technology. ‘Spray-on skin’ saved the lives of burn victims in the 2002 Bali bombings. Another example would be the authors of CSIRO’s Low Carb Diet Book, Healthy Heart Diet, Total Wellbeing Diet, which collectively sold over 1 million copies in Australia alone.


Baby steps…

If international recognition isn’t your thing, there are other ways to get the public engaged with your expertise.


One option is to reach out to what I call knowledge translators. They are distinctive in that they possess a public profile, an existing platform (such as a TV/radio program, newspaper column or blog, a service provider), and an existing audience. They do the work of translating the relevance of your work for their followers. After all, understanding the relevance of your work to the general public (to the point that they would pay for it) can be the difficult part to figure out.


Exemplary translators include Dr. Norman Swan, presenter of Radio National’s Health Report, Michael Mosley, presenter of Trust Me, I’m a Doctor, TED’s TED Talks (which has thrown into the spotlight the research of people like Brene Brown and Amy Cuddy).


Another option, which is a starting point for a lot of early career researchers, is consulting as a sideline enterprise (which requires basic business set up like getting an ABN and indemnity insurance). You may consult whole organisations, or groups/teams or individuals. It may take the form of running training sessions, designing information packs as online resources/guides, giving advice and recommendations, writing research or advisory reports, or providing data analysis and interpretation services. This kind of work can be quite lucrative, and in some cases, help you build the industry relationships that will later underpin collaboration on a funded research project.


So, if all the talk about research impact hasn’t interested you up to this point, bear in mind that it can offer you a much-needed security net during times of precarious employment as a University researcher, and lead to future funding for your research.  These two things can make the world of difference if you’re coming close to finishing your PhD (and your PhD stipend), or you’re not holding out hope for a successful outcome with your fellowship or project grant application.


So, over to you. Who are some relevant translators who could help take your research to a larger stage? What are some forms your work could take so that it mattered to, and was used by, a non-academic audience?

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