Innovation and Research Impact – Complementary or Competing Objectives?

This paper came about from having access to a complete set of research proposals on climate change and realising that there were some really interesting ways to analyse these.  Palie Smart and I worked out how best to develop the hypotheses and structure the paper.   When the research and paper started to take shape, Yehuda Baruch and Mark Johnson  analysed the data and helped to make sense of the findings.

Lettice F, Smart P, Baruch Y and Johnson M. 2012.  Navigating the impact-innovation double hurdle:  The case of a climate change research fund, Research Policy, 41, pp 1048-1057, doi:

Downloadable pdf

A summary of the research was also published at:  Lettice F and Smart P.  2012.  Don’t assume that innovation and impact go hand in hand, Research Fortnight, 3rd October, p20.

The impact agenda has become increasingly important within research settings within the UK higher education sector.  But there is a question over whether pursuing both research and commercialisation of that research are complementary or competing activities.  This is what we wanted to investigate.    We had access to all 102 of the proposals submitted to a climate change research fund.  This fund wanted to support innovative research projects that could demonstrate impact (climate change reduction) and future commercialisation of the research.  Of these 102 proposals, 27 received funding.

We considered whether those projects that predicted higher carbon reduction figures would be more likely to be funded or to receive higher levels of funding.  Our analysis showed that this was not the case.   We also assessed the commercial maturity of the projects and anticipated that those that were closer to commercialisation would be more likely to be funded.  Again, this was not the case.  We considered whether the projects funded were more likely to be cleaner production approaches, which aim to reduce or prevent emissions, or end-of-pipe solutions, where emissions are treated.  There have been calls to move towards more cleaner production approaches, which deliver higher benefits and have a bigger impact, so we anticipated that these approaches would be more likely to be funded.  Again, this was not the case.  This suggests that the other funding criteria rather than impact or commercialisation were more important.

pollution control


So was innovation more important than impact in the decision-making process?

First, we considered the level of innovation.  We hypothesised that projects with an incremental or continuity approach would be more likely to be funded than projects with a radical or discontinuity approach.  The more radical approaches could lead to higher carbon reduction, but would meet more resistance due to existing technological lock-in and the inability to reverse existing technology trajectories and path dependence.  There was no preference for either type of project.  We also considered whether projects were trying to diffuse existing solutions or create new innovations, again predicting that those that were trying to diffuse existing solutions would be more likely to be funded.  There was no shift towards new innovations in the funding of projects.

The funders requested that the proposals identified the levels of commercial, technical, societal and environmental risk within the projects.  We expected that lower risk projects would be more likely to receive funding.  However, what we found was that the decision makers favoured projects with higher technical, commercial and societal risks.   So in this case, there was some move towards riskier and possibly more innovative approaches.

Finally, we found that the success of the proposal was not based on departmental research standing nor on Principal Investigator gender.  This is contradictory to some other studies that show that funding is not always meritocratic.

The conclusions from this research are that the funders did not show any preference for funding any particular type of proposal.  The results are indicative of a compromise.  It may be that there were not sufficient individual proposals that met both the impact and innovation criteria.  Also, setting potentially competing criteria may make it harder for reviewers to compare proposals and assess claims, and so to arrive at an appropriate balance of funding decisions, particularly given the complexity and variety of the proposals and the uncertainty around how best to reduce carbon emissions.

We propose that rather than forcing the two strands of impact and innovation together in a single funding initiative, they should be seen as complementary strands and could be pursued by separate, but connected, groups of researchers and funding streams.   This would enable some researchers to work on incrementally improving and diffusing existing solutions to achieve faster impact and other researchers to pursue more systemic and discontinuous solutions that may not yet be able to demonstrate impact or where the impact is less immediate.

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