Re-thinking research impact: voice, context and power at the interface of science, policy and practice

Reed, M.S., Rudman, H. (2023) Re-thinking research impact: voice, context and power at the interface of science, policy and practice. Sustainability Science 18: 967–981.


The world is facing unprecedented challenges on a scale that has never been seen before, and the need for evidence-informed solutions has never been greater. As a result, academics, policy-makers, practitioners, and research funders are increasingly seeking to undertake or support research that achieves tangible impacts on policy and practice. However, the impact of research is inherently subjective, with the same outcome perceived as either beneficial or negative by different groups, or by the same group in different contexts. It is therefore important to consider factors that may increase the likelihood that outcomes from research are perceived as beneficial (or otherwise) by interested/affected groups and non-academic partners, to help researchers avoid causing potentially harmful impacts, despite their best intentions. In this overview article, we discuss three considerations for re-thinking how research can deliver such outcomes: (i) sensitivity to context, (ii) representation and legitimisation of diverse voices and (iii) the management of power dynamics. We then discuss how these can be enacted in research and engagement processes that are designed to incorporate multiple ways of viewing reality and knowledge, as researchers become increasingly aware of their positionality, privilege, assumptions and biases. By considering how research and impact generation processes are mediated by context, power and voice, it may be possible to envision just transformations of knowledge systems that foreground the knowledge and needs of diverse groups, including those who have been historically marginalised, and without systematically recognising or privileging one group over another.

This article speaks to the nature of research collaborations that bring forward the perspectives of non-academic partners and users of research in an authentic fashion. It seeks to create environments where adverse effects and negative societal impacts of research can be anticipated, appreciated, and minimalized in advance of conducting the research.

Kudos to the authors who – for the first time I have seen in a peer reviewed article – disclose their positionality. One author self identifies as gay and the other discloses a lifetime of mental health struggles. This is relevant because what we bring as researchers, as mobilizers and/or as users of research affects how we relate to the research and its potential societal impacts. It feels odd the first time you read this section but that is because it is new, not because it isn’t necessary.

The paper advocates for assessing three considerations (sensitivity to context, representation of diverse voices and the management of power dynamics) to understand the potential positive and negative societal impacts of research. They write these up separately but then present them in a Venn diagram illustrated by three trees that have connected growth that is visible and connected roots that are invisible. The Venn diagram is appreciated because they are inter-related. Those with power can find their voice more easily than those that don’t. Understanding context is a precursor to understanding power in that context and identifies ways to balance power which can then elevate traditionally marginalized voices. There is a brief mention of some research methods that help with understanding context, voice and power including Indigenous led research, grounded theory, participatory action research and oral history. More thinking on these methods as enablers of positive societal impact would be great.

The roots, the unseen relationships between these three elements, is very interesting and as yet under developed. I am not certain traditional methods of analysis of potentially interested parties would uncover hidden power dynamics especially if the researcher is seen to be an outsider in the context in which they are working.

The authors also avoid the term stakeholder by referring to interested and/or affected groups. This is explained a little in the paper and more in a post I recently did for Research Impact Canada. I am trying to replace stakeholder engagement with engagement with (potentially) interested parties.

The authors state, “researchers are much more likely to become aware of the broader external factors that may influence whether their research can deliver impact, and whether these impacts may be perceived to be beneficial or harmful.” This focus on external factors reminds me of work done in the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR). CFIR uses 26 elements to assess five major domains of implementation science: intervention characteristics, outer setting, inner setting, characteristics of the individuals involved, and the process of implementation. The outer setting aligns with context and the inner setting and characteristics of individuals involved aligns with the authors’ awareness of their own positionality.

My only other thought is it would have been nice to illustrate the author’s use of context, voice and power with a case study. And include a community co-author. Feels disingenuous to write about how to bring forth the voice of non-academics without actually doing it.

Questions for brokers:

  1. Power and Voice: those without power rarely have a voice but enabling power doesn’t automatically translate into giving a voice. What else needs to be done?
  2. Beyond researchers’ positionality what else needs to be done to analyze the inner setting?
  3. Instead of stakeholders we now have my use of (potentially) interested parties and the authors’ use of interested and/or affected groups. What do you think of these terms and do you have others you are using?

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series to make evidence on knowledge mobilization more accessible to knowledge brokers and to facilitate discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other parties interested in knowledge mobilization.