Tips for researchers who want to make an impact

8 March 2022

Seasoned professionals in the social sciences and humanities offer ten lessons on how to make an impact with research. The booklet, published by the Social Sciences Council of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), argues for more appreciation for impact and offers practical tips on how to get started.

Researchers in the social sciences and humanities have everything they need in their work to make a meaningful contribution to society. Their research focuses on improving political processes, public institutions and individual performance and offers valuable insights on a wide variety of subjects. As the Academy’s Social Sciences Council has noted, however, their knowledge does not automatically filter down into society. The Council organised a successful conference on this very topic in January 2021, which ultimately gave rise to the booklet Research with windows wide open.

It is not necessary for every social scientist or humanities scholar to focus on or excel at making an impact, say the authors, who also recognise that the extra work involved adds to an already heavy workload in academia. But they also know from their own experience that once you get started, you can make a valuable contribution to society and improve your own research at the same time.

Researchers can make an impact in many different ways. They can start with the issues they choose to focus on in their research. It should be noted that impact is not something reserved exclusively for those who do applied research. After all, nothing is as practical as a good theory. And it is precisely when defining basic research questions that it is important to consider the potential impact of the relevant research. Doing this can generate a feedback loop that ultimately improves the research.

The booklet offers young but also more experienced researchers tips on how make their research more widely accessible. The tips are practical in nature, for example packaging one’s research in a vivid story that is told in the right idiom, or thinking carefully about the right timing for a message – can the research be linked to a particular policy agenda and serve to influence decision-making that way? Another practical tip is to discuss the subject with one’s supervisors. Making an impact is 'real work', after all, and scientists must invest a serious amount of time in it. But they also get something in return. Ultimately, it is also up to their institution to provide the support they need to make their efforts a success.

The authors conclude their lessons by advising young researchers to think carefully about what others can do with their research findings. At the same time, they should not shy away from delivering an ‘unwelcome message’ if they must. Impact must never come at the expense of their scientific independence.

About the booklet

Research with windows wide open: Ten lessons on making an impact was published by the Social Sciences Council of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). The authors are Godfried Engbersen, Andrea Evers, Beatrice de Graaf, Paul ’t Hart, Anita Jansen, Lotte Jensen, Leo Lucassen and Maarten Prak, all of whom are professors in the social sciences or humanities. The Dutch print version will be distributed to all faculties of social sciences and humanities at Dutch universities. The Dutch version and an English translation are also available online at www.knaw.nl/impact.