In recent years there has been an increasing emphasis in the sector on the impact of our activities. Why? – because, as an organisation that depends significantly on public funding for our activities, we are increasingly being asked to justify how we make best use of it. While in the past we have been focussed on communicating what we are good at, we now must also focus on what we are good for. This is surely a reasonable request from those charged with looking after taxpayer’s money. Hence, we are all familiar with the completion of ‘pathways to impact’ statements when we submit grant applications to the Research Councils, and we will need to submit evidence of the impact of our research in REF. Given that this is worth 20% of the funding pot, we need to pay great attention to this part of the exercise.
But how can one plan research to have the necessary impact at a given time? In my experience with great difficulty! After some 30 years as an active researcher, if pressed I can name only two discoveries that have arisen in my laboratory that I would describe as truly ‘paradigm shifting’. Importantly, both of these were made completely by accident. The most recent example, where we discovered that protein binding pockets can be substantially dehydrated (thus, to the uninitiated, apparently violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics), has dramatic consequences for how small drug molecules can bind to target receptors. Moreover, the full impact of this work will only be realised when (or even if) this fundamental discovery can be applied to facilitate the drug discovery process. So both serendipity and an unknown ‘time to fruition’ means that the pathway to impact will typically be stochastic.
However, thinking further about the work that led to these discoveries does offer some hope of bringing order and predicatability to the process. To explain, there is a common feature of the way we went about each of these projects – I’d like to think that we were particularly innovative in our experimental design and execution – albeit for a different purpose! I must confess that two instances represent shaky ground on which to propose a principle, but I dare bet that the majority of ground-breaking discoveries are based not on derivative research, but on innovation of one kind or another.
So let’s innovative in our research! To promote this, I’ll shortly be announcing a prize for ‘innovator of the year’. Watch this space!