Building a research impact culture

Community member post by Louise Shaxson

Louise Shaxson (biography)

What sort of research culture underpins effective research impact on policy and practice change?

As part of a research program on inclusive economic growth in low-income countries, we commissioned four case studies to help understand how researchers had engaged with policymakers and practitioners and what happened as a result. We were particularly interested to understand whether specific types of knowledge activity (simply providing the information, translating knowledge, brokering it within the policy environment, or facilitating innovative approaches to engagement) led to different types of impact.

We found no clear links between the type of knowledge activity and type of impact. Instead, five cross-cutting issues emerged that we think speak more to how getting the research culture right can foster different and sometimes unexpected types of impact.

1. Focus on collaboration, co-creation and an iterative approach.

Received wisdom says that you should plan for impact from the beginning of your research project. While we still think this is good practice, it doesn’t appear to matter if you start late as long as you think carefully about how you start. For example, a project on farmers’ attitudes towards risk in Uganda didn’t really begin to think about impact until after the research had ended. However, it then developed a highly collaborative, iterative approach to engagement, working with farmers, as well as local and national policymakers to co-create policy proposals that would work at all levels.

2. Emphasise local scholarship.

This is essential to building the credibility of research results. While this is a stated aim of most research projects, it was core to the work of a project to align health and industrial policies in Tanzania and Kenya. From the outset, the project’s overall approach was to help African researchers build their own reputations for highly competent, credible work. African policy stakeholders were particularly keen to hear about African issues from African scholars. Having a specific strategy to strengthen local relationships ensures that they will last long after the project has ended.

3. Networking is crucial.

The aim is not to push messages to a wide range of people but to understand where the relevant conversations are happening and how to engage with them. While standard advice is to develop an engagement plan and work through it, in a collaborative project between a UK university and a Ghanaian think tank, researchers studying the diffusion of innovation in low-income countries attended or spoke at a series of conferences to broaden their networks. They found that their connections snowballed after their first few conferences. This brought the Ghanaian think tank into the limelight, raising its profile both in Ghana and internationally. While the think tank researchers found that saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity to speak was exhausting, it paid huge dividends in terms of their ability to follow the breadth of the debates and thus the range of people reached by their messages and advice.

4. It’s all about the quality of the evidence.

Providing a credible database can be just as influential as providing tailored policy advice. One project researching structural transformation and growth in Africa simply plugged a data gap with evidence from Africa, completing a narrative about the sources of economic growth and re-evaluating earlier research findings. Yet this was highly influential. The story about economic transformation in Africa was already becoming clearer, but the project played a key role in building a detailed picture about how structural transformation happens, having an important influence on the shape and nature of the debate about how to foster economic growth in Africa.

5. Sometimes, more is more.

It can be particularly effective to use all four approaches to engagement, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes sequentially. In fact, in our four case studies it proved difficult to separate out which approaches they had used: iterating different types of engagement helped to strengthen local inputs and local scholarship… which improved the quality and relevance of the evidence… which helped build wider networks… which required different types of engagement… etc. While we still think it is important to have an idea who your target audience is and to develop outline plans, we believe there is also an argument for a ‘more is more’ approach.

What has your experience been with developing a research culture for impact? Do you have other examples to share where you have diverted from received wisdom about how the research-policy interaction should be handled?

This blog post is a modified version of “Building a culture of research impact” by Louise Shaxson published in LSE Impact Blog on January 17, 2019, which also provides links and references to the original research:

Biography: Louise Shaxson currently leads the RAPID (Research and Policy in Development) programme at the UK’s Overseas Development Institute, which focuses on strengthening the uptake and use of evidence in development organisations. She has over 25 years’ experience as a researcher, research manager, policy advisor and management consultant in the UK and developing countries. Her work focuses on evidence-informed policymaking in all its guises: helping people outside government trying to integrate evidence into public policy processes, and helping those inside government departments to improve how they use evidence to make decisions. She is particularly interested in how organisational systems and processes create different cultures of evidence—and how those cultures coincide and collide to influence decision making.

Incommensurability, plain difference and communication in interdisciplinary research

Community member post by Vincenzo Politi

Vincenzo Politi (biography)

Where does the term incommensurability come from? What is its relevance to interdisciplinarity? Is it more than plain difference? Does incommensurability need to be reconceptualized for interdisciplinarity?

Incommensurability: its origins and relevance to interdisciplinarity

‘Incommensurability’ is a term that philosophers of science have borrowed from mathematics. Two mathematical magnitudes are said to be incommensurable if their ratio cannot be expressed by a number which is an integer. For example, the radius and the circumference of a circle are incommensurable because their ratio is expressed by the irrational number π.

In philosophy of science, the term is used in a metaphorical sense: two competing scientific theories, paradigms or research projects are said to be incommensurable when there is no common ground for their rational comparison and choice. The effects of incommensurability become visible during debates surrounding scientific revolutions, when the supporters of two competing paradigms or research projects attach different meanings to the same words, thus ending up experiencing communication breakdowns.

Recently, scholars interested in interdisciplinarity have started to use the concept of ‘incommensurability’ to describe some of the difficulties surrounding interdisciplinary research (see the blog posts by Andi Hess on Two types of interdisciplinary scholarship and Britt Holbrook on Interdisciplinarity and evil – Understanding incommensurability; see also Holbrook 2013). The different disciplines involved in an interdisciplinary project may not share the same vocabulary. In such cases, the specialists working on the project may find themselves in the same situation as scientists talking at cross-purposes during a scientific revolution.

Incommensurability or difference?

Not everybody agrees with the idea that the concept of incommensurability is useful in discussing interdisciplinarity. It may be argued, in fact, that the disciplines involved in an interdisciplinary project are not properly incommensurable, but just different. Incommensurability is more than mere difference: as indicated earlier, philosophers introduced this concept to describe problems associated with the choice between two competing paradigms during periods of revolutionary scientific change. However, many disciplines are not in competition at all, since they are just about different domains.

Since they are not in conflict or in competition, the different disciplines involved in interdisciplinary collaborations can be thought of as complementary, rather than incommensurable. Furthermore, the very existence of interdisciplinary collaboration seems to be evidence against the idea that there is some sort of incommensurable barrier which is an obstacle to cross-disciplinary communication.

This argument urges us to distinguish more sharply between incommensurability and plain difference, since the latter does not necessarily imply the former.

In the same way in which the existence of incommensurability among different disciplines should not be uncritically presupposed, however, the idea that different disciplines are just complementary should not be taken for granted. Whether different specialists can actually integrate their skills, knowledge and styles of reasoning for the resolution of a complex problem can be determined only within the actual context of the problem-solving practice and, often, only after the interdisciplinary collaboration has revealed itself to be fruitful. Different disciplines do not spontaneously ‘fall into place’ by virtue of their being complementary, nor does interdisciplinarity happen by fiat.

Reconceptualising incommensurability for interdisciplinarity

I suggest that there are two key issues relevant to genuine incommensurability in the context of interdisciplinary research (Politi 2017). These require some reconceptualisation of the original ideas about incommensurability.

First, I suggest that incommensurability in this context should not be conceived as an a-temporal, universal and logical relation, as it is in mathematics. Rather, we should look at interdisciplinarity from a dynamical/historical perspective. It is true that different disciplines are not necessarily incommensurable. By virtue of their historical trajectories, however, different disciplines may become incommensurable.

This happens when they end up converging towards an overlapping area of research: after all, the whole idea of interdisciplinarity is founded on the belief that different disciplines may have something to say about a common range of problems. In these cases, (parts of) different disciplines may find themselves offering incompatible (and maybe competing) solutions to problems pertaining a common sub-domain. Each discipline, in fact, may have its own way of conceptualising and modelling such problems and neither effective collaboration nor integration are guaranteed.

Second, I propose that incommensurability should not be regarded as a purely semantic problem affecting communication and arising from the way in which different scientists use the same terms. Finding a way to communicate across specialties may be necessary but not sufficient for successful interdisciplinarity. It is perfectly plausible to suppose that scientists coming from different disciplines may learn each other’s theoretical language and communicate with one another without too many problems. Successful communication, however, does not imply total agreement about the problem-solving methodologies to implement.

It should not be forgotten, for example, that incommensurability also possesses some important methodological aspects. For example, one group of scientists may prefer a theory which is more accurate and consistent, while another group of scientists may prefer a theory which seems to be more fruitful for future research. This type of disagreement has little or nothing to do with problems of translation or with the meaning of scientific terms: two groups may continue to disagree even when they fully communicate and understand each other, without experiencing any ‘communication breakdown’. Incommensurability can also have cognitive or perceptual aspects: different specialists may literally see, and therefore conceptualise, the same problem in different ways.


It makes little sense to speak of incommensurability in absolute and a-historical terms. Rather, incommensurability should be invoked when different disciplines converge towards the same domain. In these cases, mere difference can become incompatibility and competition, that is incommensurability.

Moreover, incommensurability is not only a linguistic problem preventing successful communication. Different scientists may communicate and understand each other very well but, successful communication notwithstanding, they may just ‘agree to disagree’.

What do you think? Do these ideas resonate or do you see things differently?

Holbrook, J. B. (2013). What is interdisciplinary communication? Reflections on the very idea of disciplinary integration. Synthese, 190: 1865–1879

Politi, V. (2017). Specialisation, interdisciplinarity, and incommensurability. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 31: 301–317

Biography: Vincenzo Politi PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at CEA – Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission) in Paris-Saclay, France. He works on philosophical issues concerning scientific change and on the ethics of science.

Improving transdisciplinary arts-science partnerships

Community member post by Tania Leimbach and Keith Armstrong

Tania Leimbach (biography)

Collaborations with scientists have become a major focal point for artists, with many scientists now appreciating the value of building working relationships with artists and projects often going far beyond illustration of scientific concepts to instead forge new collaborative frontiers. What is needed to better “enable” and “situate” arts–science partnerships and support mutual learning?

Our research looked at the facilitation of arts–science partnerships through the investigation of two unique collaborative projects, developed at two geographically distinct sites, initiated by artist Keith Armstrong. One was enacted with an independent arts organisation in regional Australia and the other at a university art gallery in Sydney, Australia. Continue reading

Practical tips to foster research uptake

Community member post by Emily Hayter and Verity Warne

Emily Hayter (biography)

How can researchers and policy makers work together to foster more systematic uptake of research in policy making?

In a series of workshops at the European Commission Joint Research Centre’s Evidence and Policy Summer School on migration and demography, participants identified some of the most critical stages where scientists and policymakers interact: problem definition, research process, and communication of results. We then built up a bank of practical ideas and suggestions for each stage. Continue reading

A manifesto of interdisciplinarity

Community member post by Rick Szostak

Rick Szostak (biography)

Is there a shared understanding of what interdisciplinarity is and how (and why) it is best pursued that can be used by the international community of scholars of interdisciplinarity, to both advocate for and encourage interdisciplinary scholarship? Is there consensus on what we are trying to achieve and how this is best done that can form the basis of cogent advice to interdisciplinary teachers and researchers regarding strategies that have proven successful in the past?

I propose a ‘Manifesto of Interdisciplinarity’ with nine brief points, as listed below. Continue reading

Idea tree: A tool for brainstorming ideas in cross-disciplinary teams

Community member post by Dan Stokols, Maritza Salazar, Gary M. Olson, and Judith S. Olson

Dan Stokols (biography)

How can cross-disciplinary research teams increase their capacity for generating and integrating novel research ideas and conceptual frameworks?

A key challenge faced by research teams is harnessing the intellectual synergy that can occur when individuals from different disciplines join together to create novel ideas and conceptual frameworks. Studies of creativity suggest that atypical (and often serendipitous) combinations of dissimilar perspectives can spur novel insights and advances in knowledge. Yet, many cross-disciplinary teams fail to achieve intellectual synergy because they allot insufficient effort to generating new ideas. Here we describe a brainstorming tool that can be used to generate new ideas in cross-disciplinary teams. Continue reading