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Projects & Initiatives
Bethany R. Johns, Ph.D.
Director, Research Policy
202-478-6065
bjohns@aplu.org

Ny'lyjah Cain
Program Associate, STEM Education & Research Policy
202-465-8530

Public Impact Research

APLU Impact

  • APLU recommends using Public Impact Research (PIR) as a broad label to describe how university research impacts society. 
     
  • Public Impact Research Activation Guide will help university leaders emphasize the value of collaborative research with communities.
     
    • The Activiation Guide provides best practices, fresh ideas, and recommendations for presidents, chancellors and provosts; research leaders; communications and marketing leads; writers and content creators; and researchers and scholars.

PIR Report Cover

APLU's Public Impact Research working group recommends using PIR as a broad label to describe how university research improves lives and serves society—locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. Using PIR consistently along with fundamental discovery and training the next generation workforce communicates powerfully to the public the value of university research and could help restore public trust in our institutions.

In November 2019, APLU unveiled its initial Public Impact Research: Engaged Universities Making the Difference report. The report included work by more than 60 university leaders. Drawing on the group's work, the report issues five action steps for the public university community and stakeholders to advance public impact research (PIR). Several appendices to the report are currently under final development. They will be added to this page as soon as they are finalized.

Public Impact Research Activation Guide

What is public impact research and why does it matter? Public impact research (PIR) is any research that benefits the public. This may include everything from developing new medications or understanding environmental challenges to examining disparities in education access and economic development.

Our universities were founded specifically to benefit the public, and the research that public and land-grant universities produce serves this need. Now, more than ever, we need to elevate and communicate the impact that public university research has on everyday life. We also need to emphasize the value of collaborative research with communities—not just about communities.

This guide is a resource.

This Activation Guide provides best practices, fresh ideas, and specific recommendations for presidents, chancellors and provosts; research leaders; communications and marketing leads; writers and content creators; and researchers and scholars. Please click on the headings below to expand each section as needed.

Furthering PIR requires close collaboration with others in different roles. This guide may have broad applications across your university, including with colleagues in government relations, advancement, and other areas. We encourage you to share this page as you see fit.

  • Presidents, Chancellors, and Provosts
    • Include conducting and sharing public impact research in your institution’s strategic plans and goals.
       
    • Convey to communications and marketing staff that telling these stories is a priority valued by the institution.
       
    • Include public interest research stories in presentations, especially when addressing funding/advancement audiences such as a state legislature, donors, and alumni.
       
    • Celebrate examples of public impact research through a broad range of communications mechanisms, such as official social media channels and email newsletters.
       
    • Convey to faculty the importance of demonstrating the public impact of their research both by example and by incorporating encouragement for faculty in institutional policies and procedures.
       
    • Encourage other senior leaders in your organization to lend their strong voices to telling your public impact research stories.
       
    • Convey to communications and marketing staff that telling these stories is a priority valued by the institution.
       
    • Personally engage them in the strategy phase of this work.
       
    • Find strength in numbers. Leverage your peers at APLU and other member organizations to amplify our collective message and to take advantage of our collective strengths and influence.

       
  • Research Leaders: VPRs/VCRs, Deans, and Chairs
    • Provide seed grants or other funding opportunities for collaborative PIR efforts.
       
    • Convene and coordinate campus-, college-, or department-wide discussions and processes to consider undertaking (and ultimately selecting) research agendas with public impact at their core, such as Grand Challenges and HIBAR.
       
    • Identify and empower champions of PIR, particularly individuals leading research programs that are consistent with PIR principles.
       
    • Identify and convene researchers across campus or in your college or department who are already involved in science engagement, community-engaged scholarship, and citizen science activities on their own or through their professional societies. This includes researchers who actively communicate their research to the public through The Conversation, media, and more.
       
    • Work with other campus leaders to ensure that PIR efforts are adequately appreciated and credited within promotion, tenure, and merit policies and practices.
       
    • Work with your team to compile and disseminate a consolidated resource guide to funding research with public impact at its core. This may include specific programs at NSF, DOE, NASA, EPA, etc., that center public impact.
       
    • Work with your president/chancellor and provost to make sure they have relevant PIR message points and examples to include in their writing and speaking opportunities, both formal and informal.

       
  • Communications and Marketing Leads
    • Create a narrative with a series of multiple stories or news releases on topics of great public interest (either generally or to your specific audiences). For example, you might curate a collection of stories that show the combined impact of a range of research projects on themes like climate change, energy production, or public health concerns.
       
    • Create an annual PIR campaign. Identify 5-10 examples that best illustrate the impact of research/scholarship conducted at your institution, and actively highlight that set of stories through email or social media. Identify 3-4 scholars who could serve as ambassadors for the campaign, and who could speak in a compelling way to their colleagues about the importance of this work and best practices.
       
    • Create a list of the 10-20 most impactful discoveries or findings from your institution’s history to reference in other communications. This will help convey that public impact research, while a newer term, has long been a priority for public research institutions.
       
    • Interview researchers/scholars in a variety of fields across your institution and ask them to predict the types of impactful breakthroughs they anticipate in the next 10 or 20 years.
       
    • Think about how PIR is connected with and visible within your institution’s brand. Use storytelling around PIR as an opportunity to convey and extend your brand in new directions and with new audiences.
       
    • Consider pitching articles based on faculty research to The Conversation and other outlets. Publication in The Conversation does not require institutional membership, but membership does offer benefits.
       
    • Include the phrase “public impact” in research pitches to journalists.
       
    • Prior to scheduling interviews, make sure your researchers feel confident in how to speak about the public impact of their work. Training is available through institutions like COMPASS and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.
       
    • Consider the resources available by ARIS for developing overall campaigns and material demonstrating the impact of research by your faculty.
       
    • Celebrate, to the campus community and to the public, researchers and research programs that are pursuing PIR.
       
    • Work with your campus leadership, at all levels, to make sure they have relevant PIR message points and examples to include in their writing and speaking opportunities.

       
  • Writers and Content Creators
    • When appropriate, include the specific term “public impact research” or similar language (such as “research impacting the public” or “research with a public impact”) in story and press release headlines, categories/tags, excerpts, or other visible locations.
      • Headline example: "In latest public impact research, team develops a new COVID-19 test that’s affordable, accurate, fast.”
         
    • When appropriate, use the term “public impact research” (or a similar phrase) to describe research findings in the body of the article, ideally in the first two paragraphs.
    • When interviewing a researcher about their work, ask about the ways in which their work might impact society, from different angles. You might ask:
      • How might your findings impact society?
      • What future developments might your findings make possible?
      • What are the most exciting things that might emerge from the work you’ve done?
      • How could your work change people’s lives for the better?
      • Why should the general public care about this research?
      • What implications does this research have for a pressing societal problem?
      • Are there resources you can provide, or partners you can connect me with, to help me better understand and convey the impact of this work?
         
    • When interviewing a researcher, ask if their work involved collaboration with individuals or organizations. In particular, ask if public agencies or other public institutions were involved, such as by providing funding, data, space, equipment, or expertise. Recognize those funders and partners in your coverage.
       
    • When writing about public impact research, it is critical to use accessible language that a layperson can understand. Avoid jargon and terms that have been overused or that the public just doesn’t get (e.g. commercialization, convergence, ecosystem, nexus, pedagogy). Encourage researchers to explain the findings as if they are speaking to a friend or neighbor who is not in their field or is not college-educated.
       
    • Show, show, show. In a cluttered information universe, consider using all available tools—especially video—to deliver compelling stories that will resonate with your key stakeholders. Many of our PIR stories offer great visual content that can help you earn your audience’s attention and engage them in a personal, and sometimes emotional, way. Visuals also helps the audience understand complex topics and provide hungry media outlets and social media sharers with great supplemental material.
       
    • Take time to understand the research enterprise writ large and at your institution. Understanding its complexity, incremental nature, processes, rules, how the money flows, etc., will help you tell more compelling stories and translate the research process to the general public in an accessible way.
       
    • When you post a story with a PIR angle, remember to submit it to APLU at publicaffairs@aplu.org for possible inclusion on the Public Impact Research page highlighting PIR work of member institutions. When sharing it on social media, tag it with APLU’s social handles (@APLU_news on Twitter).
       
    • When your institution distributes or promotes your story through social media, include “public impact research” language in the post itself and/or in the story excerpt that autogenerates when you share the story link, and/or include #PublicImpactResearch.
       
    • Maintain a running list of your institution’s published PIR stories for use as proof points or for linkbacks in future stories.

       
  • Researchers and Scholars
    • Connect with potential research collaborators who share your interest in public impact research by contacting your institution’s research office and utilizing tools like faculty expert databases within your institution or scholarly societies.
       
    • Explore funding sources that prioritize science engagement, community-engaged scholarship, and citizen science activities, within and external to your institution.
       
    • Develop a relationship with the communications and marketing leads in your unit or at your institution. Find out what they may already be doing to share research and scholarship with key audiences, and discuss how you might work together.
       
    • Notify your communications and marketing leads as soon as possible about research that is possibly newsworthy. Advance notice allows for more time to gather the elements needed for a compelling release. If you aren’t sure if something is newsworthy, ask.
       
    • Take time to think about how you could most effectively communicate your research to the public. The COMPASS “Message Box” offers step-by-step instructions on crafting a message that helps your audiences connect with your work in a more meaningful way.
       
    • Work with your institutions’ communications staff to think about ways to illustrate your findings. As you conduct research, think about visuals that could accompany a news release or story. Your communications contacts may be able to connect you with a photographer, graphic artist, or designer to capture those visuals as they are available. For example, your institution might send a photographer to visit your workspace to document the steps of your research process or how your research team collaborates. A staff designer may be able to make charts and graphs that will help make a story more accessible to the public.
       
    • If training would help you feel more comfortable speaking with journalists, ask your communications team for guidance. They may be able to provide training directly or recommend a workshop to you.
       
    • When being interviewed, speak about how your findings might impact society.
      • Ask yourself why the general public should care about your findings.
      • Distill your findings into 1-3 key points.
      • Don’t “bury the lede”: the conclusion of your paper should be the basis for the first sentence of an interview or a story about your work.
      • Offer examples of how your findings help advance understanding that could lead to additional impact on society.
      • Speak in an accessible way. Avoid terminology that is specific to your discipline. Explain your findings as if you are speaking to a friend who is not in your discipline or not college-educated.
      • Practice describing your findings to a friend, your unit’s communications lead, or a colleague from another discipline.
      • Practice audio or video recording yourself giving an elevator speech or answering a few questions about your work, and listen to the recording to see if what you conveyed is what you intended.
      • Think about the work on which your findings were built and credit the importance of that foundation for your findings, including crediting other researchers and institutions as needed.
      • When appropriate, include the term “public impact research” in grant applications, and when writing or speaking about your research.
         
    • If your work is supported by NSF, consider how you might note public research impacts as part of the required “broader impacts” descriptions in proposals and reporting. You might use the Broader Impacts Wizard designed by ARIS (Advancing Research Impact in Society).