Everyone wants to have impact in their job, but what does that actually mean?

For academics and researchers, since the introduction of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014, it has been clearly defined. 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“.

Whilst every professional researcher is, of course, aiming to effect change by advancing human understanding or contributing something to the greater good, for many academics that definition has meant stepping out of their comfort zones.

There have always been superstar academics – think of theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili (University of Surrey), politics professor Tim Bale (Queen Mary), mathematician Hannah Fry (UCL) or dishy but opinion-dividing physicist Brian Cox (University of Manchester).

There have also been examples of professional researchers who have had a less positive impact on public discourse – think of the since proven-to-be fraudulent research of Andrew Wakefield, whose paper led to the MMR controversy and arguably still contributes to vaccine hesitancy to this day.

But these people are the exception, not the rule, and seem to have stumbled on some secret combination of personality, media profile and social media to build a following.

For most academics their networks are small and self-promotion does not come naturally. 

However, that does not need to be the case.

Over the past year, Inflect has worked with a number of academics and researchers to help them develop their understanding of how to generate impact. What comes across from each of the people we have worked with, even in the most niche areas of specialism, is that they all have really interesting stories to tell about their work with huge potential to impact policy and public discourse.

The trick, as it often is in communications, is helping them draw out a narrative from a huge wealth of knowledge and then helping them get their message across.

We have developed a proprietary 6-module development programme that aims to take academics and researchers on this journey, from understanding the principles of influencing, where power and influence lie and through to actually doing something about it. Running these programmes, as we have now a number of times, has been an absolute privilege – a privilege not only to work with world-leading experts in their field but to learn new things and use our experience to think about how and where those ideas can gain traction.

We have become (unintentionally) informed about radionuclides, gut bacteria, video games and food additives to name a few at random – by no means experts, but given a privileged insight into fascinating, cutting edge research that could have huge impacts on future cancer treatment, public health and our future economy.

What comes across more than anything is the sheer untapped potential of the UK’s academic and research community. How many other stories are out there waiting to be heard? How many new theories, innovations or breakthroughs are failing to reach their potential impact through lack of effective promotion or dissemination?

REF has been an important, if sometimes maligned, step in the right direction, but there is so much more that can and should be done.

What has come across from the sessions we have run is that ‘impact’, however you want to define it, is more than just jumping through hoops to secure funding, it should actually be a central part of the role of the modern academic – as it is already for people in a whole raft of professions. 

In communications, my industry, most professionals will have their own networks, social profiles and personal brands that they can leverage for themselves and their employer.  Indeed, it is almost a fundamental part of what is expected of people, particularly at a mid to senior level. And I don’t think that is unique to the communications industry.

Indeed, my industry is dominated by people overselling themselves, their network and their influence in the hope of impressing clients, employers and, one often thinks, themselves.

The world of academia and research, however, feels a world apart from this. World-leading experts who continually downplay their experience, qualify their research and doubt their credibility or that anyone will be interested.

And all the while I am thinking, if anyone should have the confidence to oversell, it’s these guys!

For all its faults, REF has been an important step in the right direction toward changing this attitude and unlocking the true potential that is hidden in our country’s research sector. It is up to both the funding agencies and the institutions to keep pushing the sector forward, and for individuals in the sector to push themselves outside of their comfort zones and tell their stories. They could even consider a Tweet or two.

Not only will it help them in their careers and help raise the profile of their institutions, but public discourse and policymaking will be richer for it.

And who isn’t up for that?