Storytelling is a Creative and Vital Approach to Understanding Research Impact


Storytelling is a Creative and Vital Approach to Understanding Research Impact
Fredrik Öhlander Unsplash

Can scientific research be impactful if no one knows about it?

Science has great potential to inform decision-making and practice for important issues, yet too often it is designed without explicit attention to how it could be used and by whom. The Lenfest Ocean Program has worked to buck that trend by engaging with managers and stakeholders alongside scientists to co-develop and fund research projects that are useful and can help inform what can often be tough ocean and coastal management decisions. In a recent paper titled, Telling Stories to Understand Research Impact: Narratives from the Lenfest Ocean Program, the team explains how storytelling has helped us understand the impact of the supported research in the marine management landscape and enabled us to improve our work.

Communicating about the research we fund is paramount. Once projects are funded, we collaborate with the grantees to engage with interested audiences. Determining if the research we funded was actually useful to them, however, presents its own set of unique challenges. Narrative storytelling is one tool that is particularly helpful. The process of exploring and telling a project’s full story gives us the room to take a deep dive into how the project played out.  It also provides valuable insight into the audiences we reached and whether results were useful in the science-management landscape.

What is Research Impact?

First, it is valuable to understand how we define research impact. As explained in the paper, the Lenfest Ocean Program uses four categories:

  • Contributed to Science: The research results advanced scientific knowledge, were published in scientific journals or other technical reports, and were presented at conferences, meetings, or other venues.
  • Prompted Dialogue: The research results generated discussion among key parties, raised awareness and/or promoted understanding of an issue, or gathered the attention of the media.
  • Informed Decision-Making, Management or Policy: The research results were considered directly in discussions around management or policy decisions.
  • Influenced Decision-Making, Management or Policy: The research results directly contributed to a new management measure or policy, changes in management decisions, or other ocean-related policies.

At the end of the project, with these categories in mind, we gather information through multiple avenues including interviews with the research team, reviewing documents, and other means to assess what kind of impact the research made. Taking a retrospective look allows us to identify what aspects of a project worked best (or didn’t) and why. We then write impact narratives that describe both our successes and failures in incorporating research into the decision-making process.

Taking Stock: How Our Cross Currents Blog Uses Storytelling to Communicate Science

Impact narratives are primarily shared on our blog, Cross Currents, through a series called Taking Stock. Using storytelling allows us to explore nuances of our work and inform outreach strategies in the future. For example, the blog Collaboration Aids Nassau Grouper Recovery in the Cayman Islands, underscores the importance of ongoing and transparent outreach, before, during, and after a project.  While that may sound intuitive, it wasn’t until after we put the pieces together and followed the crumb trail of workshops, conversations, presentations, and meetings, that we realized just how influential this consistent inclusion and communication was. Developing the research questions with fishers and managers allowed each group to share their needs. This paved the way for a conservation law to be passed protecting Nassau Grouper that was supported by scientists, NGOs, and the fishing community, which was no small feat. Reflecting on this project and exploring its narrative allowed us to understand effective strategies to ensure science is used in decision-making. 

While evaluating our success is important, understanding our failures is arguably even more so. And in the spirit of transparency, we aren’t afraid to admit when we could have done better. In another blog, Communicating with Stakeholders is Key when Research Course is Changed, we talk about inconsistent communication and how that led to research results about Atlantic cod and the threat of climate change to be pushed aside by the management community.

We have since used the lessons from this project as the basis for stronger attention to transparent outreach strategies with grantees. Meeting audiences where they are and communicating consistently, including being clear about our own processes can help make projects more relatable to managers, other scientists, and stakeholders. Further, it encourages other funding groups organizations to do the same, strengthening the community as a whole.

Telling the Stories of the Past Will Inform the Future

Storytelling has allowed us to create stronger, more useful projects and outputs over time. We are now building on these efforts by establishing more indicators and metrics to better understand our research impact. By combining narrative storytelling with more quantitative approaches, we hope to paint a fuller picture of how communities interact with the scientific research we fund. The lessons we learn from these reflections and evaluations not only help us track our research impact in real time, but also strengthen the program’s approach to grantmaking, outreach, and engagement.

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Cross Currents

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Cross Currents

Cross Currents discusses the ongoing and completed results of research projects the Lenfest Ocean Program has supported over the past 15 years. These nearly 100 projects have helped connect science with marine policy and management.