Early career research & conservation impact

Prue Addison
Prue Addison, Knowledge Exchange and Research Fellow at ICCS, August 2016

Just over a month ago a group of early career researchers attended the Interdisciplinary Conservation Network (ICN) workshop at Oxford University. During the workshop we were treated to some fantastic talks by some inspirational conservation scientists and practitioners including Liz Bennett, James Watson, and E.J. Milner-Gulland. The conservation stories that were shared with us had one common theme – they were real stories of conservation impact.

One of these stories was from Liz Bennet about how decades of conservation work by the World Conservation Society (WCS) culminated in the ambitious 96 Elephants campaign, which aims to stop all trade in ivory. With the right combination of scientific evidence, a great PR team, and friends in high places, this campaign has begun to influence wildlife trafficking policy around the globe. The most recent evidence of impact is the U.S. banning the sale of ivory in June 2016.

The World Conservation Society 96 Elephants campaign – an example of conservation impact in action
The World Conservation Society 96 Elephants campaign – an example of conservation impact in action

This WCS campaign is an example of immense global impact that many early career researchers can all but dream about. In some ways, this could make early career researchers delay their own contribution to conservation impact, as they might think this is only something that they could achieve later in their careers, when they are part of a big organisation, with a great PR team, and when they have their own friends in high places.

How can early career researchers achieve research impact?

The truth is that even individual researchers can conduct research with real impact. This simply means moving your research beyond knowledge generation (e.g., undertaking research and producing scientific publications) towards applying your research to end-users like governments, NGOs or businesses.

So what does the pathway to research impact look like for early career researchers? This process can be referred to as knowledge exchange, and it can be undertaken in undertaken in a range of ways (see the Pathways to Impact word cloud below). But to some researchers this word cloud may represent a vague mess of words that were never mentioned in their scientific training.

Fortunately, Professor Mark Reed and his colleagues have done a lot of research into how to achieve research impact, and have provided some really practical tips around how to engage in effective knowledge exchange (see their five principles to achieve research impact below). These tips are incredibly useful for early career researchers, who are just beginning their journey towards research impact.

You can read all about the five principles of effective knowledge exchange in the Fast Track Impact blog. Rather than repeat all of the good advice presented on the Fast Track Impact website, and in Mark Reed’s new Research Impact Handbook; I wanted to take this opportunity to point out a few handy online resources that will help early career researchers get started on their own pathway to research impact:

1) Start off by brainstorming who the end users of your research are by using the Stakeholder analysis matrix;

2) Develop your own plan for the pathway to research impact using the Impact planning tool;

3) Check out the research impact tips, like Top Twitter tips for research impact and How to turn your research findings into a video that people actually want to watch; and,

4) Join the free (!) five week online impact training for researchers.


Research Councils UK word cloud of Pathways to Impact
Research Councils UK word cloud of Pathways to Impact.

The good news for early career researchers interested in applied side of conservation research, is that research impact is increasingly being accounted for in grant applications and in assessments of research excellence (e.g., the U.K.’s Research Excellence Framework). This means that a scientist’s performance is no longer judged solely on the knowledge they generate (i.e., publications), but also the knowledge they apply to end-users. There are even formal fellowship programs, like the Natural Environment Research Council’s Knowledge Exchange Fellowships, which support the application of environmental research to end-users. These moves represent a really exciting shift in supporting environmental researchers to achieve real impact.

I am currently undertaking a three-year Knowledge Exchange fellowship, working with businesses to help them measure, evaluate and report on biodiversity performance. As you might be able to tell from this blog, I’m really passionate about working in the knowledge exchange space, and in the application of conservation science to achieve real impact. If you share this passion with me, then feel free to connect with me on Twitter, LinkedIn, and the ICCS blog where I will be sharing more stories of knowledge exchange over the coming years!