31 March 2022

Turning academic research into social impact

A couple of months ago, we co-hosted the Social Impact Roundtable with the University of Johannesburg. The event brought together academics and professionals from across international affairs and the development sector, and reflected on how academic knowledge could be implemented in practice to reach its full potential.

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There is a distinct need for systems thinking… for people to work together and to make greater efforts to find out what each side of the coin needs”

These were the apt opening words by Curtis Raynold, the event chair and one of Acume’s advisory board members. His words preempting the key themes of the foreseeable discussion – fixing the divide, collaboration, and making research valuable.

Building bridges

The director of the Africa Centre for Evidence at the University of Johannesburg, Professor Ruth Stewart first called attention to the divide between academics and practitioners. She advised researchers to “stop working in isolation”, to embrace external collaborations, and to move away from traditional academic priorities.

Academic researchers should not always care about citations in high-impact journals, but should consider putting people’s needs at the centre of their research agenda”

Stewart was confident that access to research evidence would help to shape more inclusive and effective policy to support communities around the world. 

Jennfier Chiriga, Chief of Staff at the African Union Development Agency, likewise stressed the need to “avoid the assumption that knowledge institutions are separate from decision making systems”.

It is important for academics to work in partnership with professionals. It enables them to build up productive ways of interacting and communicating with each other, to break down barriers between the organisations with which they work. In fact, research can catalyse the effective implementation of development plans and strategies. 

Chiriga urged that it was essential that we start transforming the academic culture by making research more relevant to its end users and to begin building bridges between academics and professionals.

Agnieszka Fal-Dutra Santos, working then as the Director of Programs at Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, added that to have an effective collaboration between civil society, peacebuilding organisations and academia, then it is crucial for research to be relevant to all. She said one way to achieve this is to “translate academic research into clear policy messages”.

Social Impact

Yasmine Finbow, our founder and director stated the importance of communicating knowledge in new ways for different audiences – and suggested that academics may need to help others outside of the university understand the significance and applicability of their research. Otherwise research will not attain its social impact potential.

“The communication of academic research must be entirely reimagined”

She continued to explain that the current format of research meant that it is not being widely read outside of the university walls. Papers are lengthy, they contain complex theories, and inaccessible language, and it is hard to find what you need with outdated search and most papers being locked behind expensive paywalls.

But what must be done first?

“The first thing to do is to write something that has social impact!” Dr. Caroline Varin, the Co-Founder & CEO of Professors Without Borders, stated that currently some research has zero public value and only caters to the interests of the academics. But to research something for social impact, one must write research that is relevant beyond just academic circles.

Building a global community

Yet in addition to building bridges, producing socially impactful research and communicating it as such, Professor Francis Onditi, a Dean at Riara University reminded us that an international community of academics and practitioners is also required. And it is an academics role to engage beyond those scholars who have more journal exposure.

Dr Imrana Buba, Founder of the Youth Initiative Against Terrorism, reinforced this idea by stressing the increased value of academic research when it is inclusive of diverse communities and intellectual perspectives from around the world. He helped us understand why access to different forms of knowledge can help to widen perspectives and develop more inclusive theories.

His key advice to academics was to establish a rapport with relevant practitioners and engage in networking events in person or online via Linkedin can be highly effective in initiating meaningful connections and thus, social impact. 

Practical strategies for academics

Professor Toyin Falola, from the University of Texas at Austin, offered some more practical strategies for increasing the societal impact of academic research. He suggested that another way to communicate research outputs was to write blog entries and participate in interviews to attract wider attention and better engage with non-academics. 

Falola advised other academics to ask themselves: ‘Who is the end user?’, ‘What is your expected outcome?’ and ‘What do you want to achieve?’

Dr Peter Matanle, from the University of Sheffield, delivered ten points for achieving impact and urging academics to be proactive. The first step is to set up meetings and speak with potential practitioner partners.

Actively seeking to engage with professionals will challenge conventional thinking and encourage meaningful exchange. By aligning both your professional and personal objectives together to devise a project that is meaningful for both, will push academic research in the right direction to create more societal impact.

Dr Cassandra Veney from Case Western Reserve University suggested that new strategies and approaches need to be incorporated into university learning – starting with the undergraduate level. Including teaching students how to write policy papers and how to identify knowledge findings that could be implemented in additional projects. Only then can the whole system be transformed.

It was an exceptionally engaging discussion, encouraging much reflection. I would like to thank every participant for their valuable contribution.

The event echoed an urgent need to reform and diversify the current academic landscape. It filled us with even more purpose here at Acume. Our mission to transform how academic knowledge is communicated, accessed and connected couldn’t be more timely.

If you missed the roundtable or would like to watch it again, find it via this link.