Researchers seeking to translate their work into ‘impact’ – that is, any of the range of positive, tangible influences on society possible through research – are often advised to develop a range of ‘soft’ skills that can help them to navigate the spaces between science, policy, and practice. These include communication skills (social media, public speaking, popular articles), the ability to network effectively with diverse stakeholders, and inside knowledge gained from working in government and industry can all be incredibly useful for impact work.
What has received less attention, however, are the key personal qualities and attributes that are necessary in individuals seeking to influence policy and practice. Here, we draw on our own experiences and our recent paper to describe four qualities that are often not articulated in the literature or taught in academic training. Specifically, we will explore the importance of honesty, humility, openness, and resilience.
One of the most important attributes of individuals who successfully influence policy and practice is that of honesty – a necessary precondition to building trust with the various actors that you are seeking to influence. Indeed, dishonest or untrustworthy behaviour can severely jeopardise the potential to have impact on policy and practice.
While the importance of honesty may seem intuitive, and most scientists would consider themselves as honest individuals, communicating science has inherent challenges that may lead to dishonest actions (either consciously or unconsciously). We suggest that scientists seeking to impact on policy and practice follow Pielke Jr’s description of an honest broker, whereby you present the full suite of available options and perspectives that are available to inform the decision-making process. In contrast, advocating for a single cause or predetermined outcome or singularly promoting your own research is unlikely to lead to a long-term, productive, trusting relationship with decision-makers.
Humility refers to the state or quality of being humble, whereby an individual does not have an over-inflated sense of self-worth or arrogance. Such individuals recognise that the worldviews, beliefs, and knowledge bases of all actors are important and seek to cultivate a working relationship that respects and incorporates the views of everyone equally, rather than asserting their individual perspectives. Humility is an essential precondition of meaningful engagement and trust building, which underpins impact on policy and practice.
To act with humility, you should be situationally aware: have an understanding and respect of the various actors, their beliefs, their individual and institutional constraints, and their social dynamics. Learn to observe the policy context and actively listen to the views being expressed by diverse actors before offering your own views. Your own beliefs may be challenged, but try to see this as an opportunity for collaboration and learning (in both directions) rather than a road block. Finally, accept setbacks, admit mistakes, and take time to self-reflect to learn from your interactions.
It is also critical to be ‘open’ – open to learning, open to new ways of doing things, and open to feedback and criticism. This can be challenging for researchers who have been trained in accordance to the rules and norms of a single discipline that may not recognise the methods and approaches of other disciplines. Yet openness is a personal trait that is crucial to foster, as it is linked to the extent to which you can cultivate productive, meaningful, and sustained working relationships with other individuals.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving impact on policy and practice. Being open to learning, open to accepting feedback and criticism, and open to adapting your approach and strategies will help you to work across a range of different contexts over time.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, achieving real-world impact requires resilience. Your pathway to impact will include a range of challenges, failures, and individuals who will make you doubt yourself, your ability, and even the value of your goals themselves. You are also likely to encounter situations that challenge your personal morals and/or professional ethics, or individuals who may seek to manipulate you for self-gain. Persevering through these obstacles is not easy – and there will be times that you want to give up. We all go through this.
Working to achieve policy impact in science is hard, and especially so for early-career researchers (ECRs). The key is to remind yourself of why you are motivated to make an impact in the first place. We encourage you to stay focused on your goals, what drives you as an individual, and what you want to achieve. Make time to celebrate the small wins, no matter how small they are (e.g. developing a research impact plan, establishing a new relationship, etc.). Look after your mental health and take breaks from your impact work when needed. Surround yourself with good people – people who share your values and goals, and people who encourage, inspire, and support you.