Ten steps to make your research more relevant

By Christian Pohl, Pius Krütli and Michael Stauffacher

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research often aims at broader impact in society. But, how can you make such impact happen?

A researcher might face a number of questions (s)he was not necessarily trained to address, such as:

  • How can I be sure that my research question will provide knowledge relevant for society?
  • Who in this fuzzy thing called society are my primary target audiences anyway?
  • Are some of them more important for my project than others?

Over the last several years, we developed 10 steps to provide a structured way of thinking through how to improve the societal relevance of a research project, as summarised in the table below.

When working with researchers to plan their impact, we usually go through the 10 steps in a workshop format, as follows:

  • Before each step we provide a brief account of the underlying theory and clarify why the step matters.
  • Then we ask the researchers to complete a concrete task, reflecting on their own project
  • Researchers usually also discuss their reflections with each other and learn about different approaches to address societal relevance.
  • They also discuss the tasks with us, but we are not necessarily the ones who know the right answers.

The ten steps work best in a context where a research project leader, for example, provides detailed project knowledge and the whole group is interested in discussing the societal impact of research.

In our experience, the ten steps trigger reflection on one’s own research and allow for fruitful coproduction of knowledge in the project team on how to improve the societal relevance of projects.

What techniques have you used to plan, and reflect on, making your research socially relevant?

Christian Pohl (biography)

Pius Krütli (biography)

Michael Stauffacher (biography)

This table is from Pohl, C., Krütli, P. and Stauffacher, M. (2017); (licensee oekom verlag)

To find out more:
Pohl, C., Krütli, P. and Stauffacher, M. (2017). Ten reflective steps for rendering research societally relevant. GAIA, 26, 1: 43-51. Online (DOI): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.26.1.10 (open access).

To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal GAIA:  https://i2insights.org/tag/partner-gaia-journal/

Biography: Christian Pohl is co-director of the Transdisciplinarity Lab of the Department of Environmental Systems Science (USYS TdLab) at ETH Zurich. He completed his habilitation at the University of Bern. His research interest is the theory and practice of transdisciplinary research as a means for sustainable development.

Biography: Pius Krütli is co-director of the Transdisciplinarity Lab of the Department of Environmental Systems Science (USYS TdLab) at ETH Zurich. His research interests are procedural and distributive justice, methods and practice of transdisciplinary (research) processes, and social sustainability.

Biography: Michael Stauffacher is Titularprofessor (Adjunct Professor) at ETH Zurich and co-director of the Transdisciplinarity Lab of the Department of Environmental Systems Science (USYS TdLab) at ETH Zurich. His research interests are contested energy infrastructures, urban development, field experiments, and transdisciplinary research.

12 thoughts on “Ten steps to make your research more relevant”

  1. Thanks for sharing your framework for helping researchers to be more systematic in their thinking about co-production of knowledge. I think the steps are likely to be very useful. You frame the article around improving impact in society. My own work is focusing on how bio-physical scientists can improve impact by attending to some key variables in the socio-political context. I can see ways to link your 10 steps to the framework we are developing. In particular, we have adapted the concept developed by Donald Schön of the three artistries that mediate knowledge to practice (problem framing, implementation and improvisation). We have expanded on each of these artistries and how they might be at work in a particular social context. So, I like your approach for thinking through who to involve and how they can influence the research, and I think it is also important to help researchers to understand key social dynamics in the context. Such a combination will not only contribute to impact by improving the the research question and understanding the audience, but will enable findings from one social context be more likely to be adaptable to another – increasing social impact. I hope to contribute a blog article here on this topic soon.

    • Thanks Graeme for your comment. I am indeed curious to learn about your work! The role of context is one we are working on quite intensively ourselves. We start from the premise that context is not static but rather dynamic, that means, it is constructed, built during a transdisciplinary research project. Keen to learn how you address these dynamics. Thus, I am really looking forward reading your blog here!

  2. Very insightful and inspiring blogpost. I can see your vast experience on transdisciplinary research speaking here. The only thing I would complement is the importance of timing. Some questions have a societal relevance, but particularly in the specific time frame. For example, a policy recommendation is of greater interest, when the policy is drafted, than when it’s just implemented. I think I hence would complement step 4 with “…check whether the knowledge needed is what research might provide in the given time frame.”
    However, that’s only my 2 cents, I was a pleasure to read through!

    • Thanks for this Beni! You are indeed right that timing is essential. Yet it depends on the kind of policy recommendation you are thinking of: they can address both questions of policy design but as well of policy implementation. In fact, policy implementation has been in many of our transdisciplinary research projects essential: once a policy has been decided it remains still to be enforced, implemented, supported, etc. and it is here where td research can still make valuable contributions!

  3. Great article – congratulations! This echoes some of the things I wrote about in my 2014 paper, where we boiled this down to 5 principles (see also https://i2insights.org/2016/09/27/five-principles-for-impact/). This was the basis for my 2016 book, The Research Impact Handbook, but my most recent work based on this is a blog with Jenn Chubb that draws out key points for PhD students who want to have impact: https://www.fasttrackimpact.com/post/2017/02/08/5-ways-to-fast-track-the-impact-of-your-phd. Enjoy! And thanks again…

  4. The interaction between science and governance is indeed a tricky challenge for which we don’t provide specific methods. The way we use the policy cycle in step 3 is more about becoming aware that different groups in society are at different stages of the cycle. Some are already implementing solutions and others still question there is a problem at all. This reflection helps to clarify what group of people you want to involve in your project, and how they currently perceive what for you is a societal problem.

  5. Congratulations, excellent article! Your 10-step approach provides valuable lessons to increase the research impact on society. Considering that all these steps are relevance to conduct transdisciplinary research societally relevant, I believe that the interconnectedness of the research within the policy cycle can be a step particularly difficult to face it. Addressing the interaction between science and governance framework represent a challenging and necessary task to allow scientific insights can operate effectively in the complex decision-making context. Can you explain if specific methods are used to address this step?

    Thank you. Best wishes


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