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Writing about Impact in Humanities Proposals

20 January 2024

Today, academia has a rich and robust role to play in every sector of society, especially in the digital age and with the rise of interdisciplinary learning and collaboration. Humanities research is no exception. 

Your proposed historiographical research, for instance, might have the potential to contribute to national-level dialogues around how history could and should be taught in schools, or how to foster citizenship, or, more generally, how to build a more equitable society by understanding the collective human experience and learning from past mistakes. It might offer tools and insights for social-sensemaking – helping policy makers, educators, institutions and individuals grapple with complex questions around the future by understanding how the past has shaped (and continues to shape) our present. 

Comparable statements can be made about research in all humanities disciplines, from literature studies to philosophy, modern and ancient languages to archaeology.  

However, this enormous potential for impact is unlikely to be realised, or realised in full, without concrete, meaningful and ongoing efforts to create knowledge transfer beyond academia – as emphasised by the Hong Kong Research Grants Council (RGC) and other funding bodies. Recently, a “Pathways to Impact” section was added to the application forms for the General Research Fund and Early Career Scheme to aid applicants in demonstrating the “potential for social, cultural or economic application” of their proposed projects.

The RGC defines “impact” as follows.

Demonstrable contributions, beneficial effects, valuable changes or advantages that research qualitatively brings to the economy, society, culture, public policy/services, health, environment, or quality of life whether locally, regionally or internationally; and that are beyond academia.

Evidently, the allowed scope of impact is broad, with the only immovable restriction being that the “demonstrable contributions, beneficial effects, valuable changes or advantages” of the proposed research must extend beyond the academic sphere. It is imperative to avoid the pitfall of limiting your discussion of impact to the contributions that your research will make to specialised knowledge within your field or discipline. There is ample space to discuss the academic contributions of your research in other parts of the proposal, notably the introduction and literature review sections.

Writing the impact section of your proposal will thus require you to focus on ways in which you plan to actively extend your research beyond academia. It might even inspire you to consider new means of or channels for knowledge transfer.  

Such means and channels might emerge fairly organically from the nature of the proposed project. Some humanities experts have concrete policy ambitions and/or experience and professional connections in “public-facing” realms such as education, politics, charity work and healthcare. Some humanities-led proposals are explicitly interdisciplinary (most commonly intersecting with the social sciences, but we are seeing increasing integration of humanities and business disciplines, and there are calls for more substantive cross-over work between the humanities and the physical and life sciences). Some humanities projects will be undertaken in partnership or otherwise with the support of non-academic bodies in the field, such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or museums. Such connections provide humanities scholars with access to more established outlets and channels for exerting and measuring impact, such that knowledge transfer activities are likely already to be “built in” to the proposed project and readily differentiable by time horizon and distinct groups of beneficiaries. 

When planning to conduct “pure” humanities research without explicit arrangements for collaboration outside the field or outside academia, it may be less immediately obvious how to realise your project’s potential for impact. Consider what aspects or expected findings of your project are likely to have resonance for different groups in society – such as local citizens, policy makers, educators and healthcare professionals – and how you might target these groups in disseminating your findings, from public seminars and blogs to media exposure and meetings with NGOs, policy makers or educators. 

Non-cross-disciplinary research is likely to be presented at conferences attended by scholars working across disciplines and even practitioners outside academia, offering opportunities to access more diverse groups and forge collaborations with fields with their own well-established channels for knowledge transfer. Within the humanities, a common thread linking many disciplines is rigorous and in-depth attention to archival materials such as literary texts and historical and anthropological records and artefacts. Repositories of such materials, such as museums, libraries, private collections and even, increasingly, digital archives, tend to orchestrate their own knowledge transfer activities through, for instance, exhibitions, magazines and educational outreach. Partnering with such institutions could thus offer fruitful channels for the dissemination of your own research to target groups outside academia.

In some fields of the humanities, such as music, art history, literature and theatre studies, beneficiaries might be members of specific professional communities associated with your research, such as musicians, artists, translators, theatre companies, and writers of multiple kinds. Your research might be actionable by them to advance best practice in their fields and even exert social impact – a vision shared by many or most communities of creative arts professionals. Consider the case of a highly specialised academic project on translations of Chinese opera that is actioned by a prominent local theatre company to produce new opera productions and performances that attract cultural tourists and aid in outreach work done by that company to enrich the quality of life of local underprivileged or underserved groups. 

Through such connections with creative arts professionals, along with knowledge transfer to the social sciences and healthcare settings, your proposed humanities research could even contribute to the burgeoning field of creative arts psychotherapies designed to alleviate pain symptoms, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote mental and physical well-being. 

Again, description of such potential for impact should not be speculative – the pathways to impact section should describe feasible, well-thought-out activities or channels for knowledge transfer that are already at least provisionally underway, with contact having been made, for example, with potential partners outside academia or a public blog or forum having been established to share the PI’s ongoing and future research findings. Depending on the requirements of your application form, such pathways for impact may need to be clearly differentiated by time horizon – leading to short-term, medium-term and long-term impact – and by the expected groups of beneficiaries.

To ensure that the expected contributions described are, quoting the RGC, “demonstrable”, it may be insufficient merely to indicate how pathways to knowledge transfer will be initiated. If possible, you should aim also to describe how these activities will be maintained and how the expected contributions will be realised and assessed on an ongoing basis (into the long term). (Note that such assessment need not be – and for most humanities projects is unlikely to be – quantitative; the RGC’s definition of “impact” clearly stresses the contributions and benefits “that research qualitatively brings to society, the economy, [etc.].”)  

About the Author

Louise Woods

Co-Chief Editor / Managing Editor, AsiaEdit

Louise obtained a Double First-class BA(Hons)/MA in English and an MPhil in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (First-class Honours) from Jesus College, Cambridge, where she subsequently embarked on PhD studies on Renaissance tragic theatre and grammar.


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