Research and Impact, Innovation and Funding
Academics are good at exploring ideas and publishing the results. Yet with the increasing focus from funders on gaining impact from research, impact is becoming a key strategic driver in universities, so how can an academic make impact?
Impact is perhaps an over-used word which has taken on a new strategic meaning, so let us be clear, impact does not need to be financial (although it may have financial benefits), think instead of how research can improve the world we live in: socially, environmentally and, yes, economically. An impact can also be quite small. The key is to be able to measure the amount of change or improvement and report on it.
This is all familiar ground for an academic: hypothesise, experiment and evaluate. In other words, impact can be a way of improving academic reputation, which can lead to promotion and recognition.
Let us suppose you have an idea (call it a hypothesis if you want). Just with any idea, you need to understand it well, test out your assumptions and evaluate the results.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of the research, which results in traditional publications, if you want to create impact, you also need to understand what sort of impact your idea could make.
There may be some very obvious direct benefits to your field of study — maybe an improvement in a process or technique that can increase performance rates, reduce costs or make a technique more widely applicable. These benefits you may already have a good handle on, but if you need help, just talk to your peers. This will not only help improve your own peer network, but may enable you to open up new connections to different researchers.
However, if you think that your idea could have more than academic impact in your field of study, then before you go too far down the route of spreading your idea or publishing your results, it may be worth talking to your local technology transfer team about intellectual property (IP) protection. Every university will have such a team. Talk to them, describe your idea and get their advice on what you should and should not publish. Be pragmatic as they are there to help, not hinder. Publications can always be produced, having a viable idea that needs protection just changes when articles can be published (for example with patents pending). Publications are good for your reputation and for your idea's reputation.
Beyond the obvious direct benefits, there may be other applications you cannot see. This is where you need to widen your discussions (with the help of your technology transfer team). Talk to people in industry. Attend relevant conferences. See if any related areas might benefit from your idea. This takes a bit of effort, but networking should help if you find the right people. Again, be careful and make sure you protect your IP. If required, put in place a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with people or companies your talk in detail to. (Talk to your legal team to find out how.)
Discussing your idea is crucial as you can then assess its viability and the interest in certain domains or markets. These discussions can also lead to longer term relationships which are beneficial for your idea and reputation, and possibly for research or commercialisation funding bids.
If you have understood your idea and decided that it can make impact, then the next stage is to decide what type of impact. Remember though, everything that follows from this point is built upon a tested idea. In other words, being able to cite a paper (preferably in a 4* journal) is important, although not crucial if the idea needs careful protection.
Enhancing knowledge. This is the bread and butter work of an academic — doing research and disseminating the results, attending conferences, working on committees and editing journals. Fundamentally important, key to promotion, but sadly not recognised normally as "impact" worthy of extra funding.
Enhancing culture, welfare, health, environment, policy and people, to name but a handful of areas. This can be an extension of academic impact into the real world, from working on public committees through to developing new types of treatment or practical ways to tackle climate change. These are important impacts that can be described with an evidence base (committee minutes, changes in policy, etc.)
Enhancing economic prosperity, performance, investment and commercialisation. This is where things get tricky because this often involves skills which revolve around commerce: developing a product or service and making money. Evidence will come from commercial funding, licensing deals, spin-out companies, number of customers or revenue.
Before you go any further with your impact, you need to decide what you want to do and which category your idea best fits in. Do this in consultation with your technology transfer team and think clearly about what you want to achieve.
Ultimately, from an academic reputation and funding perspective, you are looking at the following outputs (with an indication of the effort required and the amount of associated risk in gaining a return as reportable impact).
Underpinning all of your impact. Citations to a 4* journal publication will help your reputation and your ability to get research funding. Editing journals and running and contributing to conferences are also important activities. (A normal activity for an academic — low risk.)
Each field of study will have their own particular way of impacting on policy and strategy. This may come through a professional organisation, local or central government committees, or funders. Sitting on committees, contributing to reports and getting involved in driving your subject forward nationally and internationally and key impacts that can be reported on. (An aspirational activity for an academic — low risk.)
Of increasing importance for university funding, case studies, such as those required for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment describe the impact your research has made and can turn into significant funding for your university. These should be produced as a result of any type of impact your idea might have beyond academic impact. (A normal activity for a university requiring lots of effort — low risk.)
Invented a new process or technology? You can license the idea to a company so that they can make money out of it in return for a royalty. Universities will often split the royalties with the staff involved, taking perhaps 50% and dividing the remainder between staff. (An unusual activity for an academic requiring lots of effort and trust in commercial partners — medium risk.)
If there is no company willing to take on a license, or no suitable market partner, then spinning out your own company might be your only option for commercial impact. Do not think you can form a company and sell your innovation quickly. Forming a company might be the right thing, but you need a clear market opportunity, idea and investment. Do you have the skills to run a company? What are your career aspirations? Chances are you are a researcher. Find the right partner who will invest their time, skill and enthusiasm in return for part ownership, or perhaps go down the licensing route instead. (An unusual activity for an academic requiring often superhuman effort — high risk.)
After all, this is going to help you get promoted. Well, maybe. Some universities will count "commercialisation funding" differently to "research funding". For example, if you do not publish papers as part of a funded project, it might not count in your promotion assessment. Check this out with your research support office.
You may be lucky and obtain Research Council (RC) funding for your work if the right call comes along at the right time. Otherwise, you need to look at other sources of funding such as Innovate UK, Wellcome Trust, CDE, RCUK, HEFCE and the European Union's Horizon 2020 programme.
For commercialisation (either licensing or spin-outs), then a good place to start are Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAAs). These are RC grants awarded to universities specifically to promote impact. For example, EPSRC funds IAA grants at 33 universities, the ESRC funds 24, while the BBSRC are piloting at 15.
IAA funding is typically for small-scale pilot projects. If you have a local IAA then talk to the grant holders to find out how to apply. These projects are a great way an idea can be turned into something more practical in a safe environment with low bid overheads.
If you do not want to apply directly for a grant, then consider partnering with a commercial organisation who might be interested in licensing your research or spinning out a company. Be careful that you are not on the critical path of the project as these are market-led and time critical. Having a university partner on, for example, an Innovate UK project can increase the chances of bid success. As an incentive for companies, projects with academic partners can lead to gaining twice the economic impact.
Another route to impact which does not involve licensing or spin-outs is to support a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP). This is a long term programme which aims to transfer research and up-to-date skills via graduates being embedded in a company with support from an academic. These may not count as research funding, but they can help you gain reputation and are a lower risk way of licensing research. Talk to you technology transfer team for further information.
Of course, keep a look out on what RC competitions are released. Partnerships formed through academic networking, committee work or commercialisation projects can help significantly to strengthen a bid, as well as provide opportunities for publications.
However, above all else, whatever impact you decide to make, keep track of what you have done, take plenty of photos and keep in touch with contacts as all of this feeds into a case study which can be used in the REF to increase your reputation and increase your organisations funding.
Pervasive Intelligence has an extensive range of contacts with universities and companies. We know how universities work. We also have the expertise to help apply leading-edge digital research into real-world innovations. This and our healthy track record in securing innovation funding means that we can help you put together a successful project to bring your research into the real world.