Research impact: Six kinds of change

By Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What kinds of change can implementation of research findings contribute to? Sometimes the aim is to make change happen, while at other times research implementation is in response to particular proposed or ongoing change.

Making change happen

Two ways of making change happen that are important for research impact are: 1) contributing to the on-going quest for improvement and 2) combatting practices or behaviours that have negative outcomes for individuals or society.

Examples of contributing to the quest for ongoing improvement include technological research such as invention of thinner lenses to revolutionise cameras and social research such as development and implementation of a disability insurance scheme.

Tobacco control research, which has led to a wide range of ways to reduce the prevalence of smoking and its associated harms to health, is a well-known example of combatting practices or behaviours with negative outcomes for individuals and society.

Responding to change

Responding to change involves reacting to change that is proposed – such as the introduction of a new tax or the construction of a new dam – or that is already ongoing – such as global environmental change or the spread of an infectious disease. It can be useful to tease out four types of response, along with how these are relevant to research impact.

  1. Adaptation involves adjusting to the consequences of proposed or ongoing change. This is illustrated by demographic research on population ageing which highlights the need for new styles of housing, transport and infrastructure that are suited to the elderly.
  2. Mitigation involves influencing the path of proposed or ongoing change to lessen likely negative outcomes. This can be exemplified by a different kind of demographic research, such as examining the potential effects of increasing migration or measures to increase the birthrate as strategies which might be employed by a country concerned about low population growth. Adaptation tends to be less controversial than mitigation.
  3. Passive opposition involves not complying with proposed or ongoing change. Research on how to avoid paying a new tax and its likely consequences for citizens and the government could result in such an impact.
  4. Active opposition involves working to halt proposed or ongoing change. This could result from anthropological research demonstrating the cultural value of a place scheduled to be destroyed by mining or other development. A more benign form of active opposition is materials conservation research on ways to stop decay in museum artefacts.

change kinds

Change as incremental, adaptive or transformational

Incremental change is the tweaking of policies and practices over time in order to accommodate altered circumstances or respond to unintended consequences. An example is changes to income-contingent loans repayments for university students. In 1989 Australia introduced a scheme, based on the research of economist Bruce Chapman, to provide government loans to university students, where repayments did not have to occur until a particular level of income was earnt after graduation. Over the years changes have been made to the scheme to eliminate ways to avoid repayment and perceived unfairness in the scheme.

Adaptive change or adaptive management differs from incremental change in that it involves regular reassessment and retargeting in order to avoid triggering a change that cannot be recovered from. Adaptive change has become prominent in considerations about global environmental change, with the idea that there are nine planetary boundaries within which the world needs to stay to have confidence that the planet will continue to function in the relatively benign state that it has for the last 8,000 years.

A useful analogy is likening incremental change to artillery fire, where each shot is followed by adjustments, depending on how close it got to the target. In contrast, adaptive management is like a game of pinball, where the aim is not only to strike targets but also to avoid falling into the drain, which ends the game.

Transformational change involves a radical reformulation of policy or practice. The introduction of income-contingent loans for university students, which replaced free education, is an example of transformational change.

Each of the six types of change presented earlier could be incremental, adaptive or transformational.

Relevance to research impact

Thinking about change in these different ways can be useful for measuring and assessing research impact. Did the research implementation make change happen or respond to proposed or on-going change? Was it incremental, adaptive or transformational?

Understanding different kinds of change can also help researchers learn from each other. Researchers seeking a particular kind of impact can look to relevant examples for guidance and lessons.

Do these ways of thinking about change have resonance with your experience?

Reference: Bammer, G. (2015). ‘Improving research impact by better understanding change: A case study of multidisciplinary synthesis’. In Bammer, G. (ed.) Change! Combining analytic approaches with street wisdom. ANU Press: Canberra, pp: 289- 323.

Thanks: Paul Griffiths for the analogy comparing incremental and adaptive change.

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.

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