Measuring Impact

Every Tuesday and Thursday at 10:05 AM, Ecology graduate students take their seats at the long rectangular table in LSRC A312, where we exchange thoughts on assigned journal articles. The topic of discussion last Thursday was conservation biology, though at one point we landed on the topic of broader impacts: two words well-recognized by anyone who has applied for research funding.

We noted how researchers often say that the long-term goal of their study of a certain species, community, or ecosystem is to contribute to conservation efforts. One student expressed concern and some skepticism because of the fact that she will never be the one to implement the findings of her study. Her role and her training was in science, not in implementing regulations or practices for maintaining healthy ecosystems. I related well to her comments because I have been curious about how the written broad objectives of research (as in, ‘how will this change something about the world for the better?’) are carried out.

An invited speaker addressed my curiosity during his talk at a Civil and Environmental Engineering department seminar this September. Bernard Amadei (see his TED Talk below), professor at the University of Colorado and founder of Engineers Without Borders, addressed the connection between research and its implementation. He stressed that this connection must be as direct as possible.



Initially inspiring Amadei’s passion for service research was a project in Belize that involved pumping water to a community, so that girls responsible for carrying water to the village could attend school instead. Amadei acknowledged that starting service-oriented projects led to a decline in his publishing frequency, but that the results of his work were now more meaningful than those he published in journal articles. What is the real measure of his research and his work? He is proof that a researcher’s work can have a great impact without being published in high-impact journals.

As someone who once inquired about the impact that journals have on the implementation of research findings, I found Amadei’s perspective very helpful. Over lunch on a summer weekday last year, my undergraduate research mentor was discussing his publication plans with me. I didn’t want to appear naive or ignorant with the question that I desperately wanted to ask, but I felt comfortable enough to ask anyway. I inquired what the effect was of publishing his research, in terms of the end goal of implementing the bioenergy production system he worked with.

I asked not because I was skeptical about publishing, but because I didn’t know. Caught off guard, he paused for a moment to think. In the case of his research, he admitted he wasn’t sure how effective publishing was. If he could, he would build his own pilot plant, and someday he wanted to produce liquid fuels with his research technology on a large scale. My question didn’t have a clear-cut answer after all, though of course publications are a tool for sharing results with the scientific community, so that others may build off of them. This sharing enhances the research efforts leading up to the end goals.

More recently, I told my dad the news about the acceptance of an article on which I was a co-author. He asked me how he could get a copy to read. Not thinking much of it, I replied that he couldn’t get it for free but that I could download it and send him a copy. Similar to how I questioned my research mentor about the effects of publishing, my dad asked me how the published research would be of use to those who didn’t have free access to scientific journals. Again, the broad impacts of our research weren’t achieved solely by publishing a paper that only those with access to scientific journals could read. The tangible impact may not be achieved for many more years, when my former research mentor’s plans come to fruition.

How the end goals of research are achieved, and how long it takes, depends on the field and nature of research. If implementing findings of your own research is not a possibility, as my peer stated in class, then I suppose Amadei would suggest you find the people who can help and include them in your plans. As the years move on I hope I am fortunate enough to have people ask me questions like the one I asked my undergraduate research mentor, and like the one Amadei asked himself, to remind me of the true goals of research.