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'We want to create an impact culture’

17 May 2024

Impact is becoming increasingly important within the academic world. But what exactly does it mean and what does it entail for the UG? In this series, staff members talk about their way of supporting academics in making impact. Anja Smykowski, manager of the UMCG Grant Support Hub and coordinator of the UMCG Impact Team, shares her story in this third episode. ‘A researcher who focuses only on the outcome may overlook important stakeholders.’

Text: Jelle Posthuma

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Anja Smykowski

According to Smykowski, some researchers see the term impact as a buzzword. Although the term initially works against them, the UMCG Impact Team finds that reservations often disappear when they discuss it with researchers. ‘Many people are simply allergic to the term impact. They see it as a lot of 'bla bla', something they can never reach. We explain that impact is not about the end goal, but about planning, involving the right people and using the right tools.'

This makes a precise definition of impact challenging, the UMCG employee notes. 'We had a discussion about it in our team this morning. Within the UMCG, various, slightly different definitions are used.' When the Impact Team started within the UMCG three years ago, they adopted the definition of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a system originating from the UK that measures the impact of research outside academia. 'In the case of the UMCG, impact is something that has a health benefit: better diagnostics, improvement of treatments, and so on. However, the REF definition which sees impact as an end result, is insufficient here.'

Impact cycle

Over the past three years, the Impact Team found out that the process is more important. How do you get to the point where you can actually change something for the better? This is why Smykowski's team works with the 'impact cycle'. In this model, impact is not a linear pathway with a beginning and an end, but a circular process. 'Scientists often have a clear picture of what they want to achieve. But a researcher who focuses only on the outcome may overlook important stakeholders.'

Suppose a researcher wants to develop a medicine to treat a disease, but the patients see the symptoms as the main problem. In this case, the research question does not match the need from society, argues the Impact Team coordinator. According to Smykowski, involving stakeholders is an important added value of the Impact Team. ‘As a researcher, it helps to take other viewpoints, for example by talking to patient organisations.'

The Impact Team seeks to start these conversations. 'Researchers often know where they want to go, but how do you get there? With this question, we are trying to create an impact culture within the UMCG.' To facilitate this process, the Impact Team has staff in funding, communication, innovation and impact. Together, the team works on three main areas. First, impact sessions and training sessions are organised for research groups or departments. In addition, there is a work package for 'impact awareness' and communication, which involves organising symposiums, lectures and discussions. Finally, the team supports and follows various research projects at the UMCG.


The team also helps writing 'impact narratives', where scientists explain the impact of their research through a story. 'An impact narrative that we regularly use as an example is Esther Hartman's research. She is conducting research on how movement can support learning in schools. Early on, Hartman began involving teaching associations, schools and the Ministry of Education in her research. As a result, the findings from her research are actually applied in several schools in the Netherlands.'

The trajectory of her research is therefore a great example of the 'impact cycle', Smykowski says. 'Hartman's initial research led to new research focusing on children in special education. That is exactly the idea of the impact cycle: What do you learn from you current research that can impact future research?' Among other things, Smykowski points to the annual Impact Accelerator, a grant that allows UMCG scientists to take their research to the next cycle. 'In the end, we want to accompany our researchers in this process.'

Fundamental research

Funders are also increasingly looking at the 'impact pathways' of research, says the UMCG employee. 'Scientists need to show more than just publications nowadays, it is also about other forms of output. This change in the research environment helps our team demonstrate the importance of impact to scientists.' At the same time, there are big differences among the various disciplines within the UMCG, Smykowski stresses. 'Some researchers intrinsically understand the impact cycle, like health sciences. These researchers are used to work with people outside academia.'

With fundamental researchers, the situation is often quite different, Smykowski knows. However, she says it is certainly not the objective to cast all scientists in the same mould. 'There should be sufficient room for fundamental research, also called 'blue skies research', without a direct impact on society. It is not the intention to evaluate these different research fields in the same way. This also fits well with the principles of Recognition and Rewards.'


According to the coordinator of the UMCG Impact Team, different faculties and departments can learn from each other. 'During Covid, we had a workshop with the social sciences and humanities. It was about stakeholder engagement. It is often said that involving stakeholders is much more difficult for humanities, but it was actually very interesting to get their feedback on our initiatives. It provided new perspectives.'

The Impact Team therefore hopes to build an interdisciplinary network with other faculties in the coming years. 'I also like to engage in discussions about what skills we need as impact officers or supporters. For example, what training is needed? It is a new kind of job, which has emerged in recent years. We are finding things out on the go.'

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Last modified:23 May 2024 10.14 a.m.
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