The biennial EFC Research Forum Conference took place at the Wellcome Collection in London from October 17-18, organised by the European Foundation Centre Research Forum and hosted by the Wellcome Trust. The conference, moderated by James Wilsdon, Professor of Research Policy at University of Sheffield, brought together a range of different actors from the field of research including philanthropic organisations, policymakers and researchers.

The theme of this year’s conference centred on impact, particularly research’s impact in the sphere of policy and how philanthropic institutions can play a role. A key issue was highlighted from the very outset by Research Forum Chair Fredrik Lundmark – should research be curiosity-driven without considering impact, or considering significant public funding goes towards research, should there be a clear link to its impact on the public? Most agree that this polarisation on the topic is not healthy, but although many agreed that impact and research excellence should not be seen as two separate entities, it was clear that there are an array of reasons why research is conducted beyond having an impact on policy including training the next generation of researchers.

The red thread throughout much of the conference was on the role philanthropic institutions can play. Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation stated their unique capacity to fund bold and risky ideas. As often public funding can be more constrained due to accountability factors, high-impact research is often a requirement. However, as philanthropy is private funding, they can push the boundaries more. In other words, as public funding goes to more auditable work, as Ulrike Felt, Professor at the University of Vienna described it, perhaps private funders can support more reflexive work.

Another key discussion over the two days was how impact can be measured. Research shown by Jonathan Grant, Director of the King’s Policy Institute, revealed that there are 13,000 different pathways to impact. Aside from this, the issue surfaced of high-impact journals being used to decipher the impact of individual researchers. If 60% of research results in high-impact journals cannot be reproduced, how can they be reliably used as the measure of a researcher? It was agreed by many that this means of auditing the work of individual researchers is flawed, particularly as young researchers will be largely left behind. 

A recurring issue through the conference is the length of time it takes research to make an impact, which is largely unpredictable. It could take just a few years for research to have an impact, it could take decades, or it may never have the impact hoped for. Some advocate for milestones to be used as a guide to impactful research, however others argue that this could prevent more long-term thinking.

When it comes to research trying to impact policy, Robert Madelin, outgoing Senior Adviser for Innovation, EPSC – European Commission, recommended humility. Policy is made in a triangle of evidence, values and political judgement, therefore having policies purely based on evidence is difficult. This is further compounded by conflicting research. According to Peter Piot, Director, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, timing and framing also matter. Had they not framed HIV in an economic manner, it would never have made it to the table of the UN Security Council.

There is no clear answer to the issue of high-impact research and Lundmark’s original remark. A balance must be struck between curiosity driven research and research that will impact society. There is, and should be, space for both.