Guest Post: Kirsty Jones "Why does research for social impact need a Knowledge Translation plan?"

As the research engagement and impact assessment exercise looms over Australian universities, we are increasingly having to reflect on what research impact means and how it can be achieved.

There is a wealth of research being carried out across the academy which aims to benefit communities and society more broadly. Yet while research questions are well articulated (as we would expect!), the way in which research might be used to bring about long-term change, is often not addressed or considered.

It is estimated that $200 billion of medical research funding is wasted because the full potential of research has not been recognised. It is clear, publishing research alone does not mean that research will be used or adopted. In addition, a study in 2015 analysing the case studies submitted for the UK REF, found that few researchers made active efforts to achieve research impact and for those who did make an effort, their activities were carried out in an ad hoc way.

Knowledge translation aims to close the gap from knowledge to practice. It is about ensuring that that possible end-users of research are aware of and use research evidence to inform their decision making; while at the same time ensuring that research is informed by current available evidence and the experience and information needs of the end-user. Using an appropriate KT approach can be significant step towards achieving impact outside of the academy.

I’ve spoken to researchers across numerous disciplines within the University – many are doing great knowledge translation activities: working in partnership with the end users of their research and generally embodying what it means to be a collaborative researcher. However, although there is the desire on the part of researchers to think about how they might carry out knowledge translation (we have run training courses which are always well attended), strategic KT plans for a project or programme of research are rare.

But why would a KT plan be of benefit? What incentives are there to be strategic about KT and why should a plan be put in place? Particularly when it is notoriously difficult to include KT in grant applications.

In an environment where researchers are time poor, have limited funding and are generally being pulled from pillar to post, it is my view that investing in the development of a strategic KT plan ensures that the time available to spend on KT can be used wisely. A plan can mean that the right KT approach for a project can be adopted and that resources (time and money) can be deployed in a way where you can get ‘best bang for your buck’.

What could be more frustrating than to work on a project for 3 years and then when you get to the end, you realise that you should have been engaging x as well as y, or that you are missing a key measure which would have made a real difference to z’s work. These things can happen and could ultimately be a key factor in whether your work leads to impact.

Knowledge translation can take many forms. Traditionally, end of grant KT (the dissemination of research findings) have been favoured by most researchers.  While this approach can ensure that end users are aware of the research, it doesn’t allow for that other component of KT, ensuring that your research is informed by the experience and information needs of the end user. There have therefore been increasing calls for more collaborative KT approaches (integrated KT). Ultimately, the approach that is taken will depend on the project. A KT plan can allow you to work out what approach is right for you and your project.

A good starting point is to consider what your pathway to impact is. Impact might be in the short-term or long-term, at the local or international level. It might be that impact for your current project is years down the track, but the work you are carrying out now will make an important contribution to a larger goal. It is important to reflect on the change your research can bring about, what you can do to bring about that change, and how your research fits into the bigger picture?

I’ve tended to use logic models to help me articulate where we want to get to and what we need to put in place. A logic model allows you to create a simple, visual representation of your pathway to impact. One of the drawbacks to using the logic model approach is that it presents change in a linear way. In development research, theory of change is increasingly being used. This approach places more emphasis on understanding and articulating why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context.

Whichever approach you take, in understanding the changes that need to occur to achieve impact, you can then determine who you will need to engage, the form that engagement will take and the timing. It may be end of grant KT is sufficient, but you may find that a more integrated approach is worth the time and investment.

As our universities are moving towards a more open culture of engagement and there is an increased expectation of researchers achieving social/non-academic impact, we should move away from impact occurring in an ad hoc away. Spending time planning and thinking about KT is increasingly valuable.