By Gabriele Bammer
As a researcher, do you seek to inform change, drive it or trigger it? Informing change involves providing the best facts and evidence, driving change means working to achieve a particular research-based outcome, and triggering change involves solving a problem that sets in train a chain of effects that go far beyond the research itself. They involve different skills and have different risks.
Informing is probably the most common way in which researchers seek to achieve impact and much has been written about good communication strategies to make research published in peer-reviewed journals and books more accessible.
Informing is probably the most common way in which researchers seek to achieve impact and much has been written about good communication strategies to make research published in peer-reviewed journals and books more accessible. This includes effective use of social media and producing short, punchy, well-targeted verbal or written articles or briefs. In addition, providing high-profile media commentary can get you included in background briefings to decision makers and may also allow you to reach them when they are relaxed and receptive, such as listening to the radio on waking or ferrying children to sport (PDF 150KB).
Researchers are encouraged to develop relevant skills, with universities supporting initiatives such as the three minute thesis and providing media training. Apart from the opportunity cost (time spent publicising research is time away from doing research), this activity is relatively low risk. And opportunity costs are reduced when impact is valued and measured as part of university accountability.
The rationale for driving change is when research findings are so strong and/or the consequences of inaction so significant that researchers feel an obligation not only to publicise their findings, but also to ensure that they are acted upon. … It is about winning, not just informing.
Driving change is much higher risk. The rationale for driving change is when research findings are so strong and/or the consequences of inaction so significant that researchers feel an obligation not only to publicise their findings, but also to ensure that they are acted upon. Tobacco control and climate change are prime examples. Driving change generally involves direct interaction with governments, businesses and/or civil society, forming coalitions, and effective advocacy. It is about winning, not just informing. It is therefore also highly political.
Good communication skills are still important, but additional skills are also required, including managing alliances, understanding how to reframe opposition arguments, recognising opportunities and being persistent. The risks are not only increased opportunity costs, but also potentially reputational. Attacks on the integrity of the researchers, their findings and their institutions are a common tactic of those opposing the change. Consequently, some research organisations eschew driving change as an impact strategy. It is also important to note that intense scrutiny is not all bad, as probing and testing researcher claims is critical.
Triggering is the research impact ‘sweet spot’. It catalyses change by producing a breakthrough finding or idea.
Triggering is the research impact ‘sweet spot’. It catalyses change by producing a breakthrough finding or idea. A breakthrough finding is often the solution to an essential missing piece of a research puzzle that then allows a whole body of evidence to be employed in real-world change. The work of John O’Sullivan and colleagues in the development of WiFi is an example. They discovered the critical technology that allowed information to be sent over many different frequencies and recombined at the receiver.
A breakthrough idea generally provides an effective way forward on a recognised policy or practice issue. The idea itself may not be new, but its application is. An illustration is Bruce Chapman’s work on a loans scheme to fund higher education (PDF 3.1MB, p.18), where the breakthrough idea was that repayments would be contingent on income. This led to new government policy in Australia and elsewhere. Further, application of the same principle is now being considered in other contexts, such as recompensing poor countries for skilled migrant emigration and providing legal aid for civil disputes.
Triggering may be planned or serendipitous. In either case, a critical skill is the ability to recognise the breakthough potential. Communication skills are again required and generally the finding or idea needs some push to be taken up. While triggering change is generally not as highly politicised as driving change, it requires some of the same skills, especially direct interaction with governments, businesses or civil society. The main risks associated with triggering change are again opportunity costs, but when successful these are the changes that research organisations most brag about.
Asking yourself whether you seek to inform change, drive it or trigger it is not an idle question. What skills do you want to acquire and what risks are you prepared to wear? (It is also worth noting that while reputational risk is most common with driving change, it can occur with informing or triggering if a powerful interest group is threatened; for example, when the change to higher education funding was first proposed, Bruce Chapman was vilified by university students.) A useful way to think about risks is to assess the consequences of failure, in other words what would happen if your informing, driving or triggering strategy did not work? And how can you ameliorate those risks?
For more on the complexities of change and research impact see the open-access publication:
Bammer, G. 2015 ‘Improving research impact by better understanding change: A case study of multidisciplinary synthesis (PDF 340KB)’ In Bammer, G. (ed) Change! Combining analytic approaches with street wisdom. ANU Press, 289- 323.
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the US National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center.