Impact Blog

From researcher to entrepreneur: How I’m using my researcher mindset to create impact

August 2020
Dr Tamika Heiden
Principal and Founder, Research Impact Academy

I don’t know about you, but when faced with the option to do a PhD and become a researcher I was excited to have an impact on the world! I guess I was a bit optimistic, but as researchers we are inquisitive, we love generating ideas and discovering new things. For me, this felt like a great way to contribute, to help people, and I wanted to make a difference somehow. During and following my PhD, I had been searching for and questioning how my work could make a difference beyond merely journal publications destined for life on a dusty shelf. This search continued until in 2010, when I found the field of Knowledge Translation (KT).

From my first introduction to the concept of knowledge translation (KT), it felt as if I had found the way to realise my passion for making a difference in the world. Finding KT helped me to realise that research alone, and the discovery of new evidence alone, would not make the difference that I was aiming for and through this learning, I realised the need to work in new ways to ensure that the findings of research get to the people who need to know about it, or who need to use it. I quickly saw this as a powerful force for positive change and how it was becoming an essential survival skill for researchers around the world to make connections and share knowledge between research, policy and practice to create impact.

It was in 2014 that I stepped outside of the walls of a single institution so that I could advocate for, and help a broader global audience of researchers achieve impact, this was the beginning of my consultancy. Since then, helping researchers to fulfil their dreams and deliver meaningful change to society has been a vision of mine and that’s why I founded the Research Impact Academy.

This first foray in the world of entrepreneurship was definitely scary, but the good thing about being trained as a researcher is that I could apply my (highly transferrable!) skills not only to figuring out how to start and run a business, but of course to dig into the knowledge translation (KT) evidence to find and learn proven methods, models and frameworks to translate research through best practice. In fact, one of the most interesting learnings has been the similarities between the research journey and the entrepreneurship journey. Now you might be wondering what I mean by that, well, we both think creatively and love coming up with new ideas that aim to solve a problem, aka both researchers and entrepreneurs are on a journey from idea to impact for the purpose of solving a problem. In fact, start-up entrepreneurs and researchers face many of the same problems, that is, we have very little time, limited funding, can feel unsupported, and face the risk of not succeeding. Yes, those skills and the way we learn to manage the barriers are definitely transferrable skills.

Fast forward six years, and these days, I work with hundreds of researchers and I get to help unveil the incredible research that is being done around the world so that it can be impactful in making the world a better place, the risk is worth the reward!

What is Knowledge Translation and Research Impact anyway?

KT can be a complex and confusing topic, made even more so by the multitude of terms used to describe it. It is often argued that not only do the different terms have different meanings but that KT means different things to different people, ranging from communication to linkage and exchange.

KT is sometimes confused with or thought of as dissemination, communication, commercialisation, technology transfer, or continuing medical education. However, it is important to conceptualise what is meant by the term knowledge translation as a system rather than to continue debate on terminology and differences in meaning. Importantly, KT or research translation is the process that enables research impact.

Research impact too, has many definitions. Broadly, it is all the diverse ways that research benefits individuals, organisations and nations through increasing effectiveness of public services and policy, improving quality of life and health, or economic benefits. It is necessary and important to define research impact. We must distinguish between ‘academic impact’, considered to be the research knowledge contribution to a field of study within academia, and ‘non-academic impact’, impacts that go beyond academia.

Research funders and research organisations globally are looking to evaluate research impact. These types of impacts are not easily quantified, and there are commonly considerable time lags between research delivery and its impact. Adding to this are the complexities of attribution of the research to the ultimate impact, where it is necessary to acknowledge that the impact stems from accumulated knowledge and not a specific research finding.

In Australia, the assessment of impact from the research endeavour has become more and more important and is being used as a proxy for the value of our research and the benefit of that spending to society. Consequently, researchers are increasingly expected to show value for money from their research and funders are keen to show the benefits of research spending. This has led to multiple Australian definitions, one from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the other from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The difference between them is the NHMRC inclusion of academic impacts which they term knowledge impact.

Research impact is the contribution that research makes to the economy, society, environment or culture, beyond the contribution to academic research (ARC).

The verifiable outcomes that research makes to knowledge, health, the economy and/or society (NHMRC).

The process of developing your pathway to impact

KT is the system of processes that allow for research findings to be delivered to the right people, at the right time and in a useful format for meaningful impact. It requires sharing research knowledge with varied knowledge user audiences beyond the traditional academic community so that you can increase the impact potential of your research. What some don’t realise is that knowledge translation and research impact go hand in hand. Translation is how we involve research users and share research knowledge; impact is the result of sharing that knowledge or having our knowledge used in some way.

There is a lot of theory and a lot of research evidence on how to create and evaluate research impact. Theories and frameworks alone will not show you how to achieve it. When creating impact, we have to work with people which means that we have to be flexible, work in ways that match behaviour, and consider personalities and bureaucracies.

In fact, studies have shown flexibility and personalisation of strategies is necessary. The UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) impact assessment collected 6679 impact case studies. Analysis of these case studies revealed over 3709 different pathways to impact, highlighting the individual and personal nature of how we create research impact.

Enhancing your chances of translation and research impact requires planning. You need to consider possible collaborations, avenues and tools for dissemination, and strategies to evaluate your impact creation goals. You need to work through how translation elements can be embedded in your current project or the planning of a new project or grant proposal. It involves individual thinking, planning, discussing your strategies. Who are the stakeholders required, what are the strategies to gain access to the right people, how do you manage your stakeholder relationships, what are your dissemination and translation activities, and what are the indicators of impact for your project?

Why knowledge translation is important – researchers as agents for change

Research impact is a powerful force for positive change and is fast becoming an essential survival skill for researchers around the world. It’s about having a pathway that makes connections and shares knowledge between research, policy and practice to create change.

Think back to your early steps on the research path―what values sparked your decision to set out in this direction? Maybe you were a bit like me and wanted to change the world. It is these ideas that provide value to the translation journey. When we use that same process of discovery to overcome challenges in sharing our knowledge, we are utilising our research skills and mindset. In that way, we can consider researchers as agents of change in creating research impact, promoting research utilisation, and ensuring that research findings reach the appropriate audiences.

If you want greater reach, bigger outcomes, and better impact from your research then you need to master your translation processes.

Tamika is the Founder and Director at the Research Impact Academy™ and an Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia. A graduate of SickKids’ Knowledge Translation Professional Certificate™ (KTPC) and has a decade of career experience as a researcher and research manager. She is also one of a small number of individuals in Australia trained in KT through the KTPC, which facilitates the creation of relevant research and the delivery of findings through changes in practice, programs and policy.

Photo by Paulo Alessandro Bolaños Valdivia on Unsplash

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