The End Of The Pathway, The Begining Of The Road

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The End Of The Pathway, The Begining Of The Road

On the 27/january/2020  UK Research And Innovation announced that the requirement to write a separate document describing “Pathways to Impact” has been dropped and that, starting in March 2020, new grant applications will not require this additional document. You can read the announcement here.

When the Pathways to Impact requirement was introduced around 10 years ago there was a mixed reception. Many scientists, myself included, thought that it heralded the end of curiosity-driven, blue-sky research. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and, looking back, I can say that not only my fears were exaggerated but that actually, the introduction of the Pathways to Impact requirement was a good move.  

Those of us who, back then, took the new requirement on board -some more reluctantly than others- and tried to make the best of it, benefited greatly. In my case, thinking about possible avenues to translate curiosity-driven grant ideas into impact other than research publications, led to new opportunities including the possibility to license our research, build spin-outs, etc. It enabled me to engage with various disciplines, companies, museums, TV crews, artists, non-scientist folks on the streets, etc that I would not have engaged otherwise. My research, my career and my research group were enriched because I tried to make the best of the new opportunity presented 10 years ago. 

Of course, others have remained staunch critics of the Pathways to Impact and, perhaps today, feel vindicated that this additional document has been removed. Here are six reasons why I would urge caution and suggest that people do not get too triumphalist about the new policy:

1- UKRI is removing the policy not because it failed, but because it is perceived as having been a successful initiative. This important distinction is likely to have concrete consequences (see points 4 and 5 below).

2-UKRI announced only what they have removed, namely, the additional document called “Pathways to Impact”. They are yet to announce whether this will be replaced with something else.

3- As the government is committed, especially post-Brexit, to try and get more bang for its bucks from publicly funded science and technology, I would not be surprised that -having removed the Pathways to Impact document- UKRI introduces changes into the actual case for support (the main document of an application). These changes may take many forms, e.g. a requirement to better reflect the translational potential of a research idea, how a research idea fits with national industrial strategy. UKRI may ask more detailed analysis of who the beneficiaries of the research will be beyond academic peers, clearer evidence of the co-creation of the application, etc.

4- If UKRI does not change the format of the application itself, it might still modify and adapt how an application is reviewed. The FET programme in H2020 is a good example of a funding scheme in which “blue sky” research is sponsored yet applications must demonstrate “industrial engagement” in order to have any chance of success. This is so even when there is no requirement for separate pathways to impact document in the application process. While I anticipate that scientific quality will remain paramount for UKRI, reviewers and panels might still be tasked to put more weight in translational potential, co-creation, etc.

5- Moreover, and taking cues from other countries, UKRI might be more hands-on in terms of defining priority areas with the most translation potential. To a large extent, this shift already started under May’s government with the introduction in 2016 of its Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund

Finally, and -given that it is under our own control- perhaps more importantly for all grant hackers:

6- Regardless of what final shape the announced UKRI change vis-a-vis Pathways to Impact ends up taking, understanding why the research proposed in your grant matters to anybody other than yourself, is key. A grant that makes none or poor use of the pathos design pattern is highly unlikely to succeed for the simple reason that it will fail to connect with whoever is judging the value of the grant; it will fail to tell a good story. A sure way to tell a good story in your grant is to understand, profoundly, what its impact could be whether now or down the line. 

A good blog post by Louis Clark and James Georgalakis from the Institute of Development Studies can be found here

Change is coming to the UK grant funding landscape, embrace it: where there is change there is an opportunity.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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