The European Union is considered a scientific powerhouse producing about 20% of the world's best science despite having just 6% of the world's population. However, according to the Science, Research and Innovation Performance of the EU 2022, while the EU shows strengths in technological areas related to advanced manufacturing and advanced materials, its technological sovereignty is at risk in many critical fields, including AI, big data, cloud computing, cybersecurity, robotics and micro-electronics.
The debate around the necessity of better translating scientific output into concrete societal impact is not new. One of the main measures taken by the European Commission in this regard was introducing stricter requirements for publicly funded research and innovation (R&I) projects.
Another step was providing various support schemes focusing on research uptake. Initiatives such as Horizon Results Booster offer free guidance on how to maximise the exploitation potential of research results, disseminate effectively, and go to market.
A more recent step signalling the pursuit of research impact comes from the research community itself. It involves defining a new professional role in the R&I process: the impact manager.
Just like a project manager, innovation manager, or research manager, the impact manager works collaboratively and can implement changes to improve an organisation's operational efficiency or lead the research into strategic opportunities. But the distinction comes from bearing the responsibility of measuring, strengthening, and communicating the research impact.
Training opportunities for future impact managers
"Considerable financial resources have been allocated towards the generation of new knowledge and research. However, looking back, it appears that the outcomes of these investments in terms of societal and environmental benefits and progress towards economic development are lacking, leaving much to be desired." - says Andrea Di Anselmo, president of META Group.
He recently participated as an expert in the first training program for impact managers ever organized in Europe. The course is an initiative of CODAU, the Convention of General Directors of University Administrations, and it will be presented as a best practice during the Knowledge Valorisation Week organized by the European Commission.
Dissemination and Exploitation of Research Results
To counter the risk of unexploited research efforts funded by public money, the more recent EU framework programmes pay higher attention to dissemination and exploitation activities. This new approach involves several opportunities as well as commitments for all actors involved in the R&I process be it academia or industry.
For someone seeking a career in a socially meaningful and innovative field, the position of impact manager may be a great career option. Impact managers can work both in the public and private sector in any sector involving innovative processes.
In the educational sector, they are experts within universities that offer guidance to researchers, professors, PhD students, and staff on how to make use of their knowledge effectively. Essentially, they are accountable for ensuring the fulfilment of the Third Mission, which means that research investments should ultimately yield benefits for society, the economy, or the environment.
Impact managers: What They Do?
But what do impact managers do? How can they make sure that research results are being used? On practical terms, impact managers elaborate the research exploitation and dissemination sections in fund proposals and later lead the implementation of these activities. They are also involved in identifying funding options and leading the development of new programs for their department.
"Attention over impact of research is growing and the role of Impact Managers is emerging in universities across Europe. Working either in research support or knowledge transfer offices, they have transversal skills over the whole research project lifecycle, offering a highly specialized support to increase the chances of research projects to generate scientific, economic and societal impacts. By acting as facilitators towards an impact-oriented culture in their institution, they also ensure the transfer of knowledge from academia to industry", says Valentina Romano, Research Manager and Head of Division at the Polytechnic University of Torino.
Together with Alessandra Baccigotti from University of Bologna, Valentina is the organizer of the course "Promoting the impact of EU research projects: towards the definition of a new profile of Impact Manager" mentioned above.
The idea behind the training was that impact managers need to acquire certain skills to excel in their role. An important one is intellectual property rights (IPR) management. They should also be skilled in proposal writing, as they will cover some important parts of the proposals. On the other hand, strong project management skills are expected from these professionals, as they must ensure that projects are executed efficiently and effectively. Finally, grant management is a critical skill, as impact managers are sometimes responsible for managing the financial aspects [RP1] of a project and ensuring that grant requirements are met.
Impact managers are a link
"The approach in research has changed in the last few years, and the emphasis is now problem-led rather than curiosity driven," says Andrea di Anselmo. He believes that impact manager can have an important role in helping research teams focus on generating results that solve societal problems.
As one of the main roles of impact managers is to be in contact with a wide range of stakeholders from governmental employees and investors to professional associations, they have to come up with a broad vision of the needs of all these actors and are in the best position to help the researchers meet these gaps.
Impact managers are expected to identify and engage stakeholders who may be interested or benefit from the research findings. This is one of the reasons that people with backgrounds in startup accelerators or business management are a good fit for this role. Another useful background would be humanities, as it can provide a comprehensive vision to the research process and its final link to the society.
Challenges and opportunities
Although there is a general consent on the need of emphasising impact in research and innovation, impact managers may encounter cultural barriers to achieve their goals, like the cultural mindset that still prevails in some academic organisations. "Impact managers may encounter a significant obstacle in persuading their peers that it is their responsibility to ensure the practical application of their research, and that even scientific knowledge should have some form of additional advantage. Regrettably, many researchers do not see it as their duty to consider the utilization of their research, and may solely focus on producing academic papers, which may not even serve a practical purpose", considers Andrea Di Anselmo.
While this role is still being defined, impact managers are a growing profile in universities. On Glassdor, a popular job search platform, an impact manager role typically requires eight years of experience and the salary level can vary greatly based on the sector.