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Ten lessons on making an impact: ‘What dilemmas will you face?’

In the booklet ‘Research with Windows Wide Open’, eight professors in the social sciences and humanities advise colleagues who want to make an impact with their research. They include Leiden professors Andrea Evers and Leo Lucassen. The booklet, published by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) Social Sciences Council, is available free online.

The lessons came from a conference on impact, says Professor of Health Psychology Andrea Evers. ‘This was so relevant that we wanted to share the results more widely. It is mainly intended as a tool for young researchers. Everyone wants to make an impact, but how do you go about that? And what dilemmas will you face?’

Making an impact takes time

Young researchers are often on their own when it comes to making an impact on society with their research, says Evers. ‘You want to make an impact, but you’re not trained to deal with society and the media. Which is a bit weird really because everyone expects this of researchers.’

According to Evers, one of the most important lessons is that it takes time to make an impact. ‘When you work with partners in society who don’t speak your language, this means by definition a cultural difference. Just assume you have to go the extra mile and that it can take some time. Impact is unpredictable. Sometimes you’ve been shouting the same thing for decades, but suddenly the zeitgeist is ready for it. Suddenly you’re hip and everyone is flocking to you.’

Impact can also take on undesirable forms, Evers warns. ‘It can come back like a boomerang. I once said something about my own research in an interview. A very reputable newspaper put one sentence from it on Twitter. The patient association in question interpreted it in a way that hadn’t been intended at all. It then takes on a life of its own. At times like that, you have to be resilient and not let it get to you.’

‘If you think of it as an extra chore, you’re not going about it in the right way.’

Co-author and Professor of Global Labour and Migration History Leo Lucassen sees how young researchers are eager to make an impact. ‘Many of them do it very well. But you also regularly hear people sigh, “Do I have to do that on top of everything else?” Many researchers are already pushing themselves to the limit. This booklet provides answers for them.’  His advice? ‘Don’t see it as yet another thing that you have to do, but try instead to integrate it into the work you’re already doing. If you think of it as an extra chore, you’re not going about it in the right way.’

In Lucassen’s experience working to create an impact generates new insights. ‘If you make your work accessible to a broad audience, you have to have a good think about how things actually work. That often has a useful feedback effect on the academic side of things.’


Lucassen regularly gets involved in the debate about migration and also experiences the negative side of making an impact. ‘When it comes to topics that are the subject of public debate, such as migration, the environment and gender, you have to prepare for a backlash. That’s not always very pleasant. With the rise of social media, this has increased enormously. If you’re not prepared, it can come as a shock. Do realise this, and be aware that you could get that kind of reaction. Don’t enter into it naively.’

The ‘Research with Windows Wide Open’ booklet can be downloaded free of charge from the KNAW website.

Text: Tom Janssen
Photo: iStock

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