Navigating the shifting landscape: Insights from Genevieve Bell on impactful research
With a background in anthropology and a career spanning academia and industry, our guest Prof. Genevieve Bell, Director of the School of Cybernetics and the 3A Institute at the Australian National University, brings a unique perspective to the conversation. Genevieve shares her experience and insights on the challenges and opportunities facing academia, the future of impactful research, and the importance of curiosity, community, and bravery in scholarly pursuits.
Get ready for a thought-provoking discussion that will inspire and empower researchers at all stages of their career.
In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:
What does impactful research or being an impactful academic mean to you?
It has two principle characteristics. First, when I was doing my PhD, I was really concerned coming out of what had been quite heavy theory schools in anthropology, that I wanted to write in a manner that made my work accessible. I wanted to imagine the bar I held myself was that anything I wrote should be and could be read by the people about whom it was written.
For me, the point of creating new knowledge was that you were moving multiple conversations forward and it shouldn’t just be inside your own sort of subfield. Therefore, one piece of the way I thought of impact was how do we make the work accessible to people who weren’t in our little preoccupations.
I’ve been raised with a very clear notion that there was a moral imperative to act and work every day to make the world a better place. Which sounds terribly corny, but my mother, who was also an academic anthropologist and then worked outside of the universities, made pretty clear that we had an obligation to make the world a better place, more fair, more just more equitable, more sustainable, through our labor. And if it came down to it, laying your life on the line about the things that really mattered.
So, for me, impactful was about both those things: making the work that you were doing accessible, but it was also about ensuring that the work you were doing sat inside a broader capacity for making change.
What can universities be doing to support these academics to have experiences outside academia?
I think there’s a couple of pieces to the puzzle. Some of them are structural inside universities, so certainly in Australia we’ve started the conversation about how do we imagine a broader portfolio of outputs of our research so that it is not simply contained by whatever is appropriate in your field.
Research papers, journal articles, peer reviewed papers, those are a form of outputs and they’re really important. It’s one of the ways we talk to our peers in our own communities, but there’s a broader set of other ways we communicate our work. In some of the humanities sections, whether it’s through creative works, staging exhibitions, podcasts, novels, TED Talks, our presence in social media, writing reports for government…
Now the problem there is, of course, at least in Australia, the formulation is research outputs and non-traditional research outputs immediately marking this other body as otherness. There’s always going to be a range of outputs and we should be actively working on ensuring we have a diversity of those. If you’re going to pursue that, however, you need to make sure that everything from promotions, committees, to job descriptions, to mentoring conversations, to the ways we recognize reward and celebrate aren’t just about “here’s the latest research grant I got, and here’s the thing in the peer review journal”.
I don’t want to diminish those, but I do want to suggest that we also need to index in a positive way on a bunch of other kinds of activities.
What would you recommend to PhD students or early career researchers for starting an impact journey?
Something that has nothing to do with your work. I actually think it’s about finding a group of people you want to be in conversation with, regardless of their discipline or field.
I’m always struck by the way how we narrate our academic journeys as “solo”. For me, one of the loveliest things about my time in industry was I would never had to be alone in my research. There were always a whole other group of people that I was engaged with that pushed me, that challenged me. They weren’t necessarily in my projects or in my field or in the thing I was working on, but they were invested in pushing the conversation forward.
I think there’s another piece about how we maintain intellectual curiosity for as long as we possibly can. There’s a tendency to want to become experts in things, but there’s also a bit about how do we maintain curiosity and the things beyond that expertise so that we continue to be learning and engaged.
And then in terms of picking projects, I think there’s a little bit about being brave in your scholarship too, and being willing to say “I find this thing interesting and yes, I’m going to have to justify it in some ways, but I shouldn’t let the act of having to justify it dissuade me from thinking that it is interesting”.
In summary: find things that interest you, find people that you want to talk to who are interested in you, and make sure you stay curious and brave.
Interested in more insights like this?
You can listen now to Dr. Victoria Galan-Muros, Chief Research and Analysis UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education, highlight how research intersects with the Sustainable Development Goals in this podcast episode, or read our article about the role of universities in the sustainability transition.
Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!