Impact Blog

Impactful, assessment, and other hated words…

February 2021
Dr Narelle Tunstall
Managing Editor, Graduate Research Impact


I once got a very snarky email from an academic for using the word ‘impactful’.

I know academics are critical types, so I tried not to take it personally…. but it still annoys me because, even though people love to hate it, impactful is a real word. Oxford says so!

And Merriam-Webster tells me “the word was first used in the 1950s and 1960s in contexts dealing with political theory, literary criticism, and clinical psychology before expanding into fashion and the arts”.

Looong before I used it in an ECR workshop title.

Which was back in ~2015-16 as Manager of a Researcher Development unit, making sure our PhD students were being taught more about research impact and engagement.

Turns out “Hating a word doesn’t make it less real”.

Just like hating impact assessments doesn’t make them any less real…

The reality is, for those of us in university research land, we’ve been talking about impact a lot over the last decade or so.

From the Excellence in Innovation for Australia (EIA) trial in 2012 to the inaugural Engagement and Impact Assessment that occurred in 2018, I’ve watch researchers and research administrators alike, learning how to create, communicate and evaluate research impact.

And I’d like to praise you all.

We’ve come a long way together.

Through the hard times and the good…

And impact is good.

Smart people, that I don’t personally know, agree.

I recently revisited this article from ANU’s Will J Grant and Paul Harris who back in 2012, were asserting the importance of impact. Their message then was that the impact of research carries weight – but it’s not a simple linear model.

“It’s the ripples that matter more”.

The authors highlighted that “Research activity leads to multiple impacts in different locations and different times”.

They encouraged us to think about the things between research and impact, like “engagement” and “use”, and “relevance” and “appropriateness”.

They also suggested we need to “pair the quantitative with the qualitative as we seek to better understand impacts, and develop new measures of engagement and use that go beyond our current – largely scientific and economic – metrics”.

In 2021, with a decade or so of impact assessment experience behind us, have we got good enough at capturing all of those ripples?

Ripples have reach, and the ripple effect can sometimes affect situations not directly related to the initial interaction.

Which got me thinking about research graduates.

In our assessments of research impact, should we be looking in more detail at the graduate researchers trained in, and delivering for, Australia’s research environment?

By understanding, assessing, measuring and/or describing the varied post-HDR paths of research graduates, situations that may not be directly related to the initial interaction, will we see an even greater depth to our research impacts?

Is this another way we can go beyond the scientific and economic metrics?

What do you think?

Who’s up for a ‘Graduate Research Impact Assessment’?!

Alternatively, you could help us promote the value that graduate researchers bring to a knowledge-based economy by contributing to this blog.

We’re keen for your submissions (possibly another hated word!), so please send them in!

Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

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