Impact activities take time as well as money
“If it wasn’t for the Knowledge Exchange Fellowship, we couldn’t interact to such an extent with research users in Africa and the outputs that we want to deliver would have less impact where it matters.” - John Methven, Reading University
When it comes to impact activities, having the financial resource to do them is important, but putting aside the time to carry them out is even more important. This is the advice of John Methven from Reading University whose NERC-funded project aims to improve the reliability of weather predictions in the tropics.
“All numerical weather prediction models are much worse at predicting weather over the tropics than the mid-latitudes,” says Methven. “Our project will develop the theory behind large-scale waves in the tropics. This will hopefully enable us to pick apart the processes that are responsible for forecast model error and in the longer term to improve models and the accuracy and confidence in predictions.”
When planning the Pathways to Impact for this project, identifying primary- and end-users for the research was relatively straightforward. Primary-users are the agencies issuing weather forecasts, whereas end-users those that rely on accurate forecasting such as people in agriculture, aviation, water resource planning, health epidemiology, power generation, fisheries, shipping and off-shore oil production.
“Our project focusses on Africa, so meeting up with stakeholders takes money, but above all, time and effort,” says Methven. “The very nature of impact activities means that they are people-oriented and this can be very time-consuming. If you don’t plan impact activities properly, they could consume too much of your time and not leave you enough time to do the science.”
As part of a grant from NERC worth £344,000, Methven and his colleagues have received £17,000 for Pathways to Impact, with more than 60% of that budget being for travel and meetings with stakeholders. “Getting the funds for travelling is relatively straightforward,” says Methven. “But making sure you have the time to attend all the stakeholder meetings and conferences is a challenge.”
This is why Methven is grateful that a key member of the project team, Rosalind Cornforth, has valuable experience in knowledge exchange and engagement with stakeholders in Africa. She was instrumental in writing the Pathways to Impact, as well as contributing to the science case. Subsequently, Cornforth won a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship (40% of her time) and this has added value to this project by broadening the impact plan and enabling an increase in the time spent on interaction with stakeholders, especially in Africa. “If it wasn’t for the Knowledge Exchange Fellowship, we couldn’t interact to such an extent with research users in Africa and the outputs that we want to deliver would have less impact where it matters,” says Methven.
The project will also benefit from help and advice from colleagues at the University of Reading’s Walker Institute, a leading institute in climate system science. Around 10% of the project’s Pathways to Impact budget has been allocated to paying for a colleague from the Walker Institute to help with writing press releases, briefing papers and factsheets. “This help has been invaluable in the past,” says Methven. “The staff at the Walker Institute are experts in communicating climate science to a wider audience and that is a big help to us. The factsheets and briefing notes that they helped us produce are things that we would not have done otherwise.”
Methven admits that having to think about Pathways to Impact has changed the way in which he designs his research. It has helped him to think more about users and also about ensuring that his research is useful to those end users. To help speed up the process of improving atmospheric prediction models, Methven was encouraged by NERC to persuade primary users such as the MET Office and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting to become official project partners. “This took a lot of work,” admits Methven. “Because it meant that the partners had to commit resources that they would not have had to commit had they simply been collaborators, but I believe this closer relationship will hopefully speed up utilization of the new theory to improve weather forecasting models in the tropics.”
Another surprising outcome from Pathways to Impact was that Methven and his colleagues identified a type of user business that they would not otherwise have identified – microinsurance companies. These companies provide insurance to individual farmers and cooperatives who would ordinarily not be able to afford insurance. They help their customers insure against events such as crop failure and this enables farmers to survive a bad year. “I had never heard of the concept of microinsurance before,” admits Methven. “But we are working with a microinsurance company in Senegal, which will hopefully benefit from improved weather predictions in the region. While I believe that innovation and output of original research in scientific journal articles and at conferences should be the main goal of a science proposal, Pathways to Impact has certainly helped us think about how we communicate with our stakeholders and to a wider audience.”