Why Research Funders Looking for Impact Need to Be 'DECISIVE'


Apr 14, 2016

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This commentary originally appeared on Research Fortnight on April 13, 2016.

Researchers looking to interact with the policy-making process have no shortage of advice and encouragement. The importance of evidence-based decisions is widely acknowledged, and incentivised through processes such as the Research Excellence Framework's impact assessments.

Funders, on the other hand, have little such guidance. In the UK alone, these decisions direct the flow of billions of pounds of public and philanthropic funding; at present there is little evidence to suggest how to allocate grants to researchers and research teams to increase the chances that the work they support changes lives and improves society.

This is starting to change, thanks to an emerging field dubbed 'the science of science', which uses the methods of research to study the process of research. The journal PLOS Biology, for example, recently launched its own collection of papers in this field, with a view to improve the overall quality of scientific research.

This growing interest in understanding what makes research successful and effective prompted us and colleagues to revisit three studies carried out over the past decade on the social and economic impacts of biomedical research into arthritis, cardiovascular disease and stroke, and mental health.

Each study traced the impacts of research over 10–20 years, and examined a total of 63 case studies focusing on individual research teams and ideas. The studies attempted to identify the key characteristics of the researchers and the research environment associated with both academic and societal impact.

We concluded that eight lessons emerged from the three studies that can help inform funders' strategies. To maximize impact on patients over 10–20 years, funders should consider: 1) looking for researchers with a range of different skills, 2) supporting them in engagement activities, 3) focusing on clinical work, 4) concentrating on impact, not merely academic excellence, 5) picking projects of appropriate size, 6) building international connections 7) using a variety of measures to capture impact and 8) expecting only a few projects to yield most of the returns. Using a bit of artistic license, we arranged these lessons into a mnemonic: DECISIVE.

These lessons should encourage funders to think beyond the normal criteria of excellence in research funding. We found little correlation between the research considered academically most excellent and the research that leads to the widest social and economic benefits.

To expand on our lessons a little, they imply looking for principal investigators and groups with a diversity of skills, such as an ability to think through the pathway from research to its application and the capability to work across different disciplines. It also means supporting engagement activities and interactions with patients, collaborators, policymakers and regulators, for example by involving patients in the planning or translation stages of research. Researchers who collaborate internationally also have greater impact, and funders should support researchers to form these connections.

All three studies found that clinical, rather than basic research, led to greater benefits for patients over the 10–20 year timescale studied, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, research carried out by those motivated by patient need was more likely to benefit patients.

There are caveats to these conclusions—these studies, for example, don't address the 20-year plus impact of basic research. However, funders looking for the maximum benefit to patients within a generation may want to focus their research on the clinical arena.

In terms of managing funders' expectations, the studies found that bigger isn't necessarily better. The impact of small grants can equal or exceed that of large awards. In addition, a majority of the benefits came from a minority of the studies—underlining that individual research projects are risky endeavours and should be viewed as such.

The survey of all these research stories revealed a broad range of benefits: from new understanding of the processes of life, to new companies, and from improved organisation of ambulance services, to reassurance through screening programmes and improved therapeutics. A broad view, and a variety of metrics, will be needed to capture and assess these benefits.

Though our findings are not an 'impact recipe', we hope that they will help stimulate an evidence-based and informed debate among research managers and members of grants panels. The end goal is better decisions and support of research that has the best chance of delivering broader social and economic gains.

Steven Wooding is a senior research leader at RAND Europe and co-director of the Policy Research in Science and Medicine (PRiSM) unit, a partnership between RAND Europe and the Policy Institute at King's College London, where Adam Kamenetzky is based as a research fellow.

For further insights and updates follow PRiSM on Twitter: @PRISMscience

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