Reimagining Academia

Academia could change the world – but only if it changes first

What is social impact if not impactful?

Dulcey Lima P7fvusy 5ws Unsplash

Photo by Dulcey Lima | Unsplash

19 October 2022

Social impact has thankfully cemented itself as a lasting notion.

It has forced us think twice about what should be researched. What knowledge does society need to truly innovate and grow?

In the social sciences, research can bring light to corruption, inequality, power imbalances and numerous other social issues that can contribute to better societies. We pose careful solutions, bright ideas and formulate meticulous critiques on what could be approached differently.

The quest for social impact encourages us to share our papers outside the confines of university walls. We share on social media and try to publish open-source.

Social impact gives our work meaning.

But if we want to be true change makers – then we need to do more.

If the world’s most trustworthy, exciting and important research is shared, but not read or used. Then it is not being put into use. And if it is not being put into use – then it is not making a social impact.

We need to do more to ensure excellent research is not just conducted, but that it is also translated and connected to its greatest opportunity to inspire change.

Critical for international development

For the international affairs and development sector, access to trustworthy knowledge could not be more critical.

NGOs and governments are not just curious about research findings, they need them. The conclusions drawn as an outcome of rigorous research can help to mitigate financial risk and strategise advancement of the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals.

Without access to trustworthy knowledge that informs on new ways, or strategies to avoid, it is hard for these organisations to change their approach and truly innovate.

With little wriggle room for mistakes, too often than not, new project designs remain replicas of an organisation’s past – perhaps slightly tweaked in an attempt to navigate some known issues.

But this cookie-cutter approach, which has become synonymous with the sector, is not suitable for changing times, cultures and societies and, thus, significantly limits the progress and impact potential that could have been achieved, which, within this sector, affects the livelihoods of real people.

It can mean that the same outdated colonial aid structures from last century continue to be replicated and, as we all know, this does not lead to empowerment and progress. It leads to frustration and wasted resources.

In one conversation that I had with a former employee of a Washington-based development NGO in the United States working across 20 African countries, I was told: “Projects from Washington were so hard to implement in the field.

“Projects were designed by the headquarters’ memory and staff, and were not informed by local contexts, people or additional insights. This led to delays, wasted resources and awkward exchanges that otherwise could have been avoided.”

The need for new ideas

One way to start moving away from colonial aid structures is to arm professionals with new insights and ideas.

And not just any ideas, but ideas that are generated from rigorous research and are representative of diverse perspectives.

Academic research direct from the community or produced by academics who are representative of the region could not be more valuable for the international affairs and development sector’s ability to innovate.

Academic insights make transformation possible while minimising the risk. Academic knowledge offers a roadmap to a progressive society.

But that’s only if insights are read. Of course, this is an easier statement to write than to put into practice.

So how do we increase the possibility research is read?

Of course, we can’t guarantee it. But we can take a few actions to boost the probability that research is actually read. Increasing this correlates with its chance of impact.

Actions could be: using simpler language, extracting what’s most useful, explaining what it means to society – or even connecting insights directly to the end user.

But it is not down to one or two academics going that extra mile, otherwise it would not be a challenge worth discussing. It would be fixed.

Instead, we need to reengineer how it works across both the academic and the development sector. We need to change how academics and professionals communicate and work together. And we might even need to change some expectations around what academic knowledge is and how it should be communicated.

Bridges need to be built, channels of communication need to be established, academics and practitioners collaborating, sharing knowledge and working together needs to be normalised. There is no easy fix.

While ambitious, this is also Acume’s mission. We are trying to find a way to bring everyone together and maximise the potential impact of all useful research. We want to help academics become change-makers without the effort, and we want to empower change-makers to make the most impactful decisions using trustworthy information.



Connect with fellow researchers driving social progress. Sign up to share your work and influence global development and policy.

Written by Yasmine Finbow 

Hello researcher

Use our free tool to transform your research into practical summaries for policymakers and practitioners. Reach a wider audience and make a real-world impact. Sign up now, and after creating your first summary, become one of our paid experts.

Start sharingLearn more

Hello changemaker

Access our free library of summaries to find evidence, or book a one-hour consultation. Gain diverse perspectives, avoid costly mistakes, and enhance your social impact by collaborating with experts who understand and represent local communities.

Chat with usLearn more