Redefining ‘impact’ so research can help real people right away, even before becoming a journal article

Perhaps nowhere is impact of greater importance than in my own fields of ecology and conservation science. Researchers often conduct this work with the explicit goal of contributing to the restoration and long-term survival of the species or ecosystem in question. For instance, research on an endangered plant can help to address the threats facing it.

But scientific impact is a very tricky concept. Science is a process of inquiry; it’s often impossible to know what the outcomes will be at the start. Researchers are asked to imagine potential impacts of their work. And people who live and work in the places where the research is conducted may have different ideas about what impact means.

In collaboration with several Bolivian colleagues, I studied perceptions of research and its impact in a highly biodiverse area in the Bolivian Amazon. We found that researchers – both foreign-based and Bolivian – and people living and working in the area had different hopes and expectations about what ecological research could help them accomplish…

Eighty-three percent of researchers queried told us their work had implications for management at community, regional and national levels rather than at the international level. For example, knowing the approximate populations of local primate species can be important for communities who rely on the animals for food and ecotourism.

But the scale of relevance didn’t necessarily dictate how researchers actually disseminated the results of their work. Rather, we found that the strongest predictor of how and with whom a researcher shared their work was whether they were based at a foreign or national institution. Foreign-based researchers had extremely low levels of local, regional or even national dissemination. However, they were more likely than national researchers to publish their findings in the international literature….

Rather than impact being addressed at the end of research, societal impacts can be part of the first stages of a study. For example, people living in the region where data is to be collected might have insight into the research questions being investigated; scientists need to build in time and plan ways to ask them. Ecological fieldwork presents many opportunities for knowledge exchange, new ideas and even friendships between different groups. Researchers can take steps to engage more directly with community life, such as by taking a few hours to teach local school kids about their research….(More)”.