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Interview with deputy director John Westensee: Focus on Impact is Important - Get Inspiration Here

What will be the 'impact' of your research? Your proposal should answer that question both precisely and with sufficient details, says deputy director of AU Research and External Relations, John Westensee. John Westensee has recently attended a conference in New Zealand where impact was the dominant theme.

Even harder requirements to the quality of the proposals are being made, and all applicants are working at tuning their proposals to meet the new requirements. In Australia, they are presently introducing quality evaluation of the impact section just as in the UK where basic funds for research are distributed according to such evaluations. So we’re all in the same boat," says John Westensee: Clearly, we all face the same challenges. The funders make increasing demands on social impact. The applicants meet a similar pressure everywhere. At AU, we need to be even more focused on our role in society. It is very important to consider the criteria set out in a call and to address such criteria in a clear and precise manner. This makes heavy demands on both consultants and researchers. But it also makes demands on the training (or on the upbringing) of the researchers.

Impact is more than products and finance
John Westensee believes that we can learn from the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (NSSI). Their overall definition of impact is: 'The direct and indirect ’influence’ of research or its effect on an individual, a community or on society as a whole, including benefits to our economic, social, human and natural capital'. On the basis of that definition they were able to suggest - in their presentation - how we can work more sophisticatedly with the concept of impact, e.g. by looking at the various dimensions of impact and by considering several types of social advantages:

Dimensions of impact:
• Economic
• Environmental
• Health and well-being
• Social

Consider multiple types of benefits:
• Benefits across multiple sectors
• Potential to scale up to nation-wide
• Job creation
• Development of clusters
• Multinational business attraction
• Diversification of the economy
• Protecting markets and the reputation of New Zealand
• Improved social well-being
• Policy, regulatory or standards change
• Faster uptake of results
• More efficient processes
• Better use of resources.

'The presentation was inspiring and provided great understanding of the impact as a much broader concept than we tend to see it. There are many different types of impact - impact is not just products and finance. The social sciences and the humanities have impact as well. Everyone has something relevant to offer in relation to users, customers, society etc. It is therefore important to be aware of the extent of the concept of impact when writing a proposal'," says the deputy director.

In his experience, AU is not quite good enough at writing the impact section in EU proposals. Impact weighs 1/3 in the assessment. And the feedback from the EU Commission is that several applicants have not understood it well enough. 'They cover the concept too superficially as in a brochure, or too extravagantly promising  'the moon'. But as I said, we are not the only ones who have that problem. We just have to work hard at improving our proposals, and the Research Support Office will assist in such work", says John Westensee.

Internal peer-review - One Approach
At the conference, University of Tasmania explained how they work to improve the quality of their proposals (and of the impact section). They have developed a First Page Peer Review programme. The program appears to have had a very positive effect on the internal cooperation of the academic staff at the time of proposal preparation," says John Westensee. He believes that an internal peer review system can be a good way to improve the quality of the proposals. ‘Work on such a system is in progress at AU. But a systematic approach would help. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from Tasmania when it comes to operationalizing such a system. The system is already being organized at AU. And the Research Support Office will try to introduce such an approach at one of the coming meetings in Fundraiserforum.

Many interesting presentations
In addition to presentations on impact, there were a number of other interesting presentations and posters. E.g.:

• Building bridges between researchers and research administrators
• Identifying promising researchers
• Lifting the quality of letters of support

• La Trobe University made an interesting presentation on the way in which they approach  significant proposals in a structured way.

• Australian National University presented a schematic overview of application processes with a series of deadlines. The overview also indicated the kind of services that researchers can receive, if they meet the deadlines. There were also examples of the kind of services that they offer researchers as a group.

As soon as the presentations are available at ARMS’s website, we will provide a link on the front page of our website.

John Westensee also recommends this article: Measuring the impact of Science: Beyond the Economic Dimension of Benoît Godin and Christian Doré.