How can water research have more impact?

How the Oxford-led REACH programme is working to achieve impact.

Research impact is increasingly important for academic institutions. Ideas of ‘research for research’s sake’ are fading as impact now counts for 25% of a university’s REF2021 assessment up from 20% in previous rounds.

Oxford University is leading a 7-year, DfID funded water research project called REACH to improve water security for 5 million poor people in Africa and Asia. In a problem-focused, policy-driven project such as this, it is necessary to consider what research impact is and how it can be achieved and measured.

Last week, Dr Catherine Fallon Grasham, a human geographer and postdoctoral researcher for REACH, presented at Making a Difference: an impact conference for the social sciences, held at St Anne’s College in Oxford. Stakeholder engagement emerged as a critical component of achieving research impact. There was also a shared consensus that social science has an image problem. It is too often regarded as a ‘soft science’, less rigorous and relevant than the physical sciences. Social scientists must find more convincing ways of communicating the importance of their research findings.

Research impact takes multiple forms. It is essentially about finding avenues for research to have some influence in shaping the world that we live in. Specifically for REACH, it is about identifying and engaging with decision-makers to ensure that the research is driven by local needs, embedded within existing processes of change and that there is local ownership of resulting interventions.

REACH is designed to build science-practitioner partnerships and works closely with UNICEF across Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya.

“Successful relationships with partners and stakeholders, such as government bodies, private companies and NGOs, have been absolutely crucial for REACH to have impact,” said Dr Grasham.

The Rural Water Supply Network and the International Water Association are also part of the REACH consortium and have strong roles to play in disseminating research findings to their networks.

Water researchers commonly work within interdisciplinary teams and REACH works across the social and physical sciences. Understanding the socio-political processes that shape access to water is critical for finding ways to improve water security which means that there is a lot of space for social science in the project. Dr Grasham went on to say:

“We are all working together towards a common goal of improving water security for 5 million people which makes it easier for us to work across disciplines.”

Next month, Dr Grasham will be travelling to Semera in the Awash river basin, Ethiopia to engage with stakeholders about her social research on the inequality of water access and to identify the most tangible ways that REACH research can have impact.