A research project should never be an aim in itself, but it should always try to achieve something of interest for our human society. We say that it should try to have an effect on our society, or an impact. We can clarify this by giving a few relevant examples:
- A project in agriculture may lead to an a different approach to crop production, resulting in higher yields or in improved quality. (In this example the impact is related to its relevance for development.)
- A theoretical project, be it in mathematics or in chemistry..., may result in a new understanding of the basic laws of nature, and this may eventually become the starting point for new research projects, either by the same author or by a different research group. (The so-called “Impact Factor” of a scientific publication specifically tries to measure ex-post this kind of impact.)
We can distinguish between short term impact (e.g., the development of a temporary medication for an illness for which it can be hoped that soon a more definitive remedy will appear), and the long term impact (e.g. , the discovery of the photovoltaic effect which led to the development of solar voltaic energy). The long term impact, nevertheless, is sometimes rather speculative, as it is often based on the belief that any discovery may one day lead to useful applications. This may be true, but in the developing world priority is often given to short term benefits...
Whatever the result of a project may be, its impact will be greatly reduced if nothing is done to bring this result to the potential beneficiaries. For technical inventions or improvements, this means that a practical application should be realized, and that an effort should be done to spread the news of this possibility. Awareness raising about the results of the project through publications in an international scientific journal or via an Open Access publication channel is a must in all cases.
How can it be used
Ex ante: If the project starts from a practical problem for which a solution is sought, the importance of the problem and its solution is an indication of the impact of the project. If the subject of the research project is not directly related with the improvement of a local problematic situation, the impact should be measured from the expected added value for the society from the increase in our understanding of the subject.
Ex post: Here we may distinguish between projects whose result is immediately and successfully put into practice (positive short-term impact), where the result is unsatisfactory or impractical due to external circumstances (dubious impact), or where the result is interesting but not of immediate applicability (potential long-term impact).
- What is the (expected) output of the research project, and how will this output be disseminated?
- Try to evaluate the degree of impact (high or low?), its time scale (short or long term?) and its regional scope (does it have a global impact, or is its usefulness a typically local matter?).
- How is the relation between the (real or expected) impact and the cost of the project? A high impact project may justify a higher cost.
- Have the results of this project already been realized in a practical application? (ex post)
- Social sciences : Have the results of this project a potential for advances in human relations, e.g., in theory of conflicts, theory of negotiations,… ?