|Parker: yes, m'lady|
Last week Kevin Parker of KKI Associates gave a talk to try to demystify impact. Usefully, he encouraged the audience to distinguish the 'features' of their research from its 'benefits'. He gave the example of Exxon's development, in the mid 1990s, of credit card payment systems at petrol pumps. In order to make this happen, Exxon needed to do a huge amount of research and development, including electronic systems to read credit cards that would not create a current or a spark that could ignite the petrol fumes. Did they dwell on all this cutting edge technology when talking to the public about it? No. They talked about the fact that the new system would allow stressed out parents to get home in time for their children to watch Barney the Dinosaur. That was the real world impact of their research.
For Parker, there were essentially four possible benefits that academics could identify:
- It allows us to do new things: for instance, when the first transistor radio was developed it stuck rigidly to the valve radio template: large, lumpy, mains powered. It was only when Sony miniaturised it and made it battery powered and affordable that it really took off, giving teenagers the chance to listen to their own music wherever they wanted.
- It saves us money: in the past Parker had worked with someone who had developed a new lathe. The lathe had many 'features', including hydraulics, but what sold it to car manufacturers was that it would save them money by cutting out one part of the production process.
- It makes life easier: Are people doing something difficult, dirty or unpleasant, can you help them out? For instance a scanner that allows doctors to better diagnose cancer, and avoids unnecessary interventions, or architecture that is designed to make a working environment more efficient.
- It makes us think differently about ourselves: whether it be Darwin changing how we understand our position in the natural world, Einstein our place in the universe, or historians our place in time, the public is genuinely interested in understanding how we fit with our environment, and how we view ourselves. Another example was the miniskirt and original Mini: both were adopted more because they made people feel good - or differently - about themselves rather than because they were practical, or even because they were innovative products.
The ultimate test of a successful impact claim is whether it can be delivered as an 'elevator pitch'. Could you say, in a couple of minutes, what makes your research special and why people should care?
We're hoping to get Kevin back to talk again in the new year, but in the meantime a version of Kevin's talk is available on his website, here.