A Layer Cake of Motivations

A Layer Cake of Motivations

This is the third in the series, Bracing for Impact, by Dr. Elizabeth N. Farley-Ripple. Follow this link to the first in the series, Exploring the Concept of Research Impact and this to the second in the series, Is research impact different than research use?

We now enter week three of our blog series on research impact.  In prior posts, I explained a bit about my motivations for this series  and the differences in those concepts.  In this post, I consider whether and how research impact matters.  In my conversations, this was a point of convergence.  Everyone agreed it does, and largely for similar reasons: education is important for children and for society, and research can help us improve education opportunities and outcomes.  While I agree entirely, I, at first, was concerned that my question begged a too socially desirable an answer. But a closer review and a good deal more time reflecting about my conversations yielded a few important nuances that may be useful for informing the dialogue.

Complex chain creating impact
First, while we may value research impact for its promise to improve education, the reality is that impact is more often talked about in terms of decisions or policies.  Across conversations with the six thought leaders, people described a complex chain implied in impact:

Research may be the outcome of a decision,

        which, of course, must be implemented,

                      a process which is influenced by context, and

                                 may not lead to the intended outcome in spite of research. 

So there appears to be a disconnect between what we want research impact to mean and what research impact actually means.  I say that with full recognition that there are indeed models where impact continues throughout implementation and outcomes – such as in implementation research and some forms of research practice partnerships.  In fact, one of the thought leaders I spoke with believes that those who enter into research-practice partnerships (RPPs) do so specifically to have that kind of impact.  Nonetheless, I feel it is important to note the disconnect in our claims about why it matters and what it actually matters for.

Second, impact matters in different ways to different parts of the education system.  It might matter in the short or long term, for example.  As one person pointed out, he may need to show impact in order to “keep the lights on”, while someone else may be looking over the long term of their career to see if they made a difference in a particular school community.  So there are other motivations – as one put it “layers” of motivation – I’m imagining a metaphorical layer cake of motivations – that make research matter.  Self-interest is one, though it need not be as nefarious as it sounds.  Employment and organizational sustainability may depend (to varying degrees) on whether or not research has impact, a layer of accountability now widely experienced by our UK counterparts.  As the idea of research impact grows roots in our community, it is important to recognize that how we think about impact and how we measure it are critically important in understanding our own accountability in low and potentially high stakes environments.

Third, the what of research impact matters.  At various points in my conversations, the focus shifted from a study to a body of research to a career (or researcher, for that matter) and more.  If research impact matters, both at the level of society and potentially for individuals, I believe we ought to have a very frank conversation about what we mean by research.  Some people I spoke with expressed outright concern that no single study should ever impact policy or practice, but rather a longer term accumulation of knowledge can produce change.  In contrast, others spoke of particular pieces of research potentially changing how a school operated. This tension has critical implications for our expectations, as individuals, organizations, or a research community, of impact.

Lastly – I’m not entirely sure where this fits, but I want to acknowledge it explicitly because I’m not sure it is recognized in the larger research use space – is that research impact can have a social justice agenda.  This idea was raised by a funder, and was an entirely new point of discussion in my conversations.  The argument flows as follows: Research is about understanding, improving, changing.  If we weren’t concerned with research impact, that could be considered implicit acknowledgement that the status quo is okay. 

What Matters – research impact or research use? 
The question of motivation – why we care about research impact – is complicated.  But it is also one that was widely agreed upon.  In this light, it is easy to understand how the idea has crept into the dialogue.  However, the range of motivations and potential disconnects noted above matter for both how we measure impact and how we support it – the themes of the next two posts.  As usual, I’ll end by encouraging discussion for our readers: does research impact really matter? Or is it really research use that we are after? I look forward to hearing from you on Twitter: @rsrch4schls #researchimpact.

*Author’s Note: I’d like to acknowledge the support of the William T. Grant Foundation for creating the opportunities that resulted in this line of work, and Vivian Tseng and Mark Rickinson for their generosity in letting me bounce ideas off of them. I’d especially like to acknowledge the six thought leaders who volunteered their valuable time to contribute to this project.

About the Author:
Dr. Elizabeth N. Farley-Ripple, is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware. Her research focuses on policy analysis and evidence-based decision-making in schools. She can be reached at enfr@udel.edu.


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