October 13, 2021

How to Advance Research Impact in Canada

With a few critical changes, Canada can make significant progress in its goal of funding research that positively impacts the lives of Canadians.

This was the consensus viewpoint that emerged during a panel discussion on Research Impact in Canada that Researchfish hosted on September 29, 2021.

How Canada is falling short of its goal, what it’s doing well with regard to research impact, and strategies to improve research impact were the main focus of the discussion hosted by Researchfish CEO Sean Newell.

Joining Sean were panelists Dr. Jonathan Grant, a past President of RAND Europe; Dr. Kathryn Graham, Executive Director of Performance Management and Evaluation at Alberta Innovates; and Eddy Nason, Senior Advisor in Creating Impact for Genomics in Society at Genome Canada.

A Mandate from the Prime Minister

Universities and researchers in Canada have long promoted the importance of designing research for impact, and in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made impactful research a formal goal of his new government.

In a mandate letter to his Minister of Science, Trudeau wrote, “I expect that our work will be informed by performance measurement, evidence, and feedback from Canadians. We will direct our resources to those initiatives that are having the greatest, positive impact on the lives of Canadians . . .”

So, how well is Canada doing with ensuring that its funded scientific research has a positive impact on Canadians?

The panelists identified a number of areas where there is a strong opportunity for improvement.

Canada Needs Better Alignment Between the Aims of the Research System and the Desired Impacts of Different Provinces

One shortcoming Eddy Nason identified in Canada’s approach to research impact is that what researchers and universities pursue is not necessarily valuable and impactful to those outside of the research system.

Reflecting on this idea, Dr. Grant wondered aloud whether the desire to develop standardized, across-the-board measures of research impact may be at odds with serving Canada’s diverse provinces, which each likely want different impacts.

Making matters worse, the majority of research funding in Canada comes from the federal government, even though the impact of that funding is often felt locally, Eddy observed.

Moreover, the provinces’ goals for impact may not always align with federal goals.

On the bright side, Dr. Graham noted that Canada has an opportunity to develop a “Canadian Approach to Impact” that could more fully expand on the “Analysis” motivation for impact, often referred to as the 4As: the other As include Allocation, Accountability, and Advocacy. (ISRIA Statement). Canada could expand on the Analysis perspective to include Learning and advance impact using a “living lab” concept (that is, developing, testing, learning to understand what works, doesn’t work, under what conditions for who). 

As Canada works to improve its research impact, the county has the advantage of excelling at evaluation and knowledge mobilization (that is, translating research results into impact and evaluating its impact).  

If Canada could marry its talent for knowledge mobilization to implementation processes for achieving desired impacts, it could more effectively translate its research into desired impacts (intended and unintended, local and globally). Impact evaluation (or assessment) findings would then inform actions for improvement.

Canada Must Value Long-Term Impacts

Another concern that the panelists identified was that stakeholders in the Canadian research system may focus too much on short-term impacts.

Instead, these stakeholders should recognize that significant impacts from research can occur 20 to 25 years after the research.

As a result, researchers and other stakeholders in the research impact community would do well to remind political leaders that research is a long-term investment that may have its greatest impacts many years after its completion. In addition, those in the research impact field should identify potential early markers that a research project will have long-term impacts.

Canada Must Assess the Actual Impact of Projects that Have Intended (and Unintended) Impacts

Canada has done well in supporting integrated knowledge translation projects, in which researchers partner with end users of research to increase the chances that the research is translated into a practical innovation, treatment, or policy change.

Often, these end users are shaping the research to achieve a particular desired impact. 

For example, in the case of an integrated knowledge translation project involving research into the social determinants of asthma, perhaps the end user is hoping the research results in practical strategies for addressing social determinants of asthma.

Where Canada has struggled, Eddy Nason argued, is with assessing whether these projects actually have the kind of impact they were designed to have.

Thus, in the case of this hypothetical research, it would be critical to see whether the good intentions of the researchers and end users actually produced the strategies they were after for addressing the social determinants of asthma.

“In Canada, the opportunity is to build on all that excellent work of planning for certain impacts with the understanding and tools from other countries of how to measure whether that impact is something that actually happened or not,” Eddy explained.

Grand Challenges, Equity, and Misguided University Incentives

The panelists also touched on a number of other topics about research impact in Canada, including —

  • who should be involved in coming up with grand challenges for Canadian researchers
  • the role that equity, diversity, and inclusion should play in research impact
  • embedding societal impact into the design of research projects
  • how university incentives for researchers’ career progression may be harming the research impact agenda in Canada
  • whether the University system in the Netherlands presents a better model for incentivizing university researchers 

You can learn their thoughts on these topics and more by listening to the recorded webinar.

The webinar ended with Dr. Grant asking webinar participants about their interest in continuing the conversation about a “Made-in-Canada Impact Approach,” and participants expressed enthusiasm for his proposal. 

Whether you’re an administrator at a Canadian University, a researcher in Alberta, a policy specialist at a research center in Vancouver, or a follower of research impact studies from another part of the world, there’s a lot of provocative ideas about improving research impact in Canada to learn from the webinar panelists.

Have a listen, and feel free to contact us with your reaction.