Supporting knowledge mobilization and research impact strategies in grant applications.

Author:Phipps, David
Position:Report - Abstract

Abstract: Each application to the National Science Foundation (NSF) must contain a Broader Impact (BI) strategy. Similarly, grant applications for most research funders in Canada and the UK require strategies to support the translation of research into impacts on society; however, the guidance provided to researchers is too general to inform the specific impact strategies required by funding agencies and peer review panels. Furthermore, there is almost no training and few tools provided to research managers and administrators to support the development of these strategies. To fill this gap, university based knowledge mobilization professionals in Canada have developed specific tools and services to support research impact strategies in grant applications. Over the last 10 years the Knowledge Mobilization Unit at York University (Toronto, Canada) has used planning tools and standard approaches to support knowledge mobilization strategies in 137 grant applications resulting in 42 funded research projects attracting over $47M in research funding. The Knowledge Translation (KT) Core facility of the pan-Canadian research network, NeuroDevNet, has supported knowledge translation strategies in 11 grant applications resulting in 2 research projects attracting $2.9M in the last 2.5 years. The tools and processes used to develop these strategies have supported grant applications in a range of disciplines and are presented to help research managers and administrators support impact strategies in grant applications.

Keywords: knowledge mobilization, research impact, pathway to impact, research administration, research grant application


The academic research enterprise has always been measured on inputs (such as external funding, dedicated research space, infrastructure) and more recently on outputs (international databases ranking publication performance and citation indices), but what about the impacts of research? Publication citations are a proxy for scholarly impact, albeit a contentious proxy (Archambault & Gagne, 2004), especially for the humanities and creative arts. But what about beyond the academy, such as impacts of research on the economy, health and wellbeing, society, culture and the environment? The Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences (2014) has articulated that humanities and social science research can have impacts not only on scholarship and training but also on the economy, society/culture and on public policy. All UK universities are assessed through the Research Excellence Framework [] in which universities are scored on their ability to articulate their research excellence (80%) and impact of research beyond the academy (20%) such as positive changes in society, economy, culture, health and the environment.

In Canada, the impacts of research are a feature of most research funding programs. Every grant application submitted to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) (2015) requires an outcomes statement (what impacts are anticipated) and a knowledge mobilization strategy (how those impacts will be achieved). The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) (2012) and most Canadian health charities require grant applicants to articulate a knowledge translation strategy that articulates what impacts will occur and what efforts will be made to achieve them. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) requires a commercialization plan for grant applications that involve collaboration with industry.

Canada's Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) [] are uniquely designed to achieve socioeconomic impacts arising from academic research and training. Traditional NCE networks receive S4-5M per year for five years with an option to apply for renewal for an additional two five-year cycles. This results in a potential investment of up to $75M over 15 years. The plans for Knowledge and Technology Exchange and Exploitation (KTEE) and the involvement of Networks and Partnerships are two of five evaluation criteria.

Similar strategies are required by applicants to the seven funders that comprise the Research Councils UK (RCUK). For example, the Economic and Social Research Council requires considerations of impact in all grant applications:

In line with the common position on Excellence with Impact adopted by RCUK, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) expects that the researchers it funds will have considered the potential scientific, societal and economic impacts of their research... Applicants should actively consider how these can be maximised and developed through the Pathways to Impact document (formerly known as Impact Plan) in their application. (Economic and Social Research Council, 2016c, para. 2) The RCUK has made it a requirement for funding to include a satisfactory impact strategy, confirming the importance of these impact strategies to the application for funding. In their response to recommendations arising from a review of pathways to impact the RCUK stated:

Recommendation 3: RCUK should emphasise the need throughout the application process and the importance of a carefully considered Pathways to Impact as part of the good research proposal. RCUK Response: A clearly thought through and acceptable Pathways to Impact statement is an essential component of research proposals and a condition of funding. Grants will not be allowed to start until a clearly thought through and acceptable Pathways to Impact statement is received. Research Councils have agreed that if an application is considered excellent for research in terms of the proposed research but has a poor Pathways to Impact statement, funding will be withheld until a clearly thought through and acceptable Pathways to Impact statement has been received. (Research Councils UK, 2015, p. 1-2) Similarly, The National Science Foundation (US) assesses the strategy for Broader Impacts (BI) alongside the intellectual merit of the grant application (National Science Foundation, n.d.). The NSF provides direction regarding the BI section of the application:

The Project Description must contain, as a separate section within the narrative, a discussion of the broader impacts of the proposed activities.... Such outcomes include, but are not limited to: full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); improved STEM education and educator development at any level; increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology; improved well-being of individuals in society; development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce; increased partnerships between academia, industry, and others; improved national security; increased economic competitiveness of the United States; and enhanced infrastructure for research and education. (National Science Foundation, 2013) To help meet the requirement for a pathway to impact statement in UK grant applications, ESRC provides applicants with an Impact Tool Kit (2016a) and guidance for knowledge exchange (2016b) in grant applications but has no guidance specifically for staff who are supporting the grant application process. In order to assist Canadian researchers, SSHRC (2015) has provided directions on what comprises an effective knowledge mobilization strategy and CIHR (2012) has produced a guide for researchers to integrated (i.e. collaborative research involving non-academic research partners) and end of grant (i.e. dissemination) knowledge mobilization. Yet there is little, if any, guidance for research support staff seeking to assist researchers crafting these impact strategies in their grant applications.

A review of the websites of the Canadian Association of Research Administrators (CARA) [], Society for Research Administrators International (SRA) [] and the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) [] failed to identify any guidance or tools for research support staff helping researchers develop impact strategies in grant applications although webinars (Canadian Association of Research Administrators, 2016) on enhancing research impact have been offered. The UK Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) [] provides links to impact related resources from funders but nothing specific to the preparation of either a grant application or its support by research grant professionals. The advice that is provided is tailored to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), not for supporting development of the impact strategies in grant applications.

The need for specific knowledge mobilization planning is underscored by research on research impact. A review (King's College London & Digital Science, 2015) of the 6,679 REF impact case studies demonstrated there were 3,709 unique pathways to impact. With this degree of uniqueness of impact pathways the generic advice available from Canadian and UK funding agencies can only begin the process of planning for impact. Researchers and their partners need tools, training and support by research grants professionals to craft specific knowledge mobilization strategies that will enhance their success at peer review and create the conditions that will maximize impact of their research.

Problem Statement

Technology transfer/commercialization offices routinely support the development of commercialization...

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