How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Grimpact

I love this term — coined to describe research that has a contagiously negative impact on society. But I think that’s too narrow a definition for what could be a broadly useful concept.

The poster child of grimpact is the 1998 Lancet article that found recipients of the MMR vaccine were at heightened risk of developing autism. The paper’s conclusions were eventually refuted, the paper retracted, the paper’s authors stripped of their medical licenses — and yet the conclusions of the paper still took on a life of their own, outrunning all attempts by the scientific infrastructure to counter them.

Grimpact, Gemma Derrick and Paul Benneworth argue in a new post to the LSE Impact Blog, happens not in spite of the current drive for impactful research, but because of it.

Grimpact relies on the system, culture and metrics of peer-reviewed impact research to become credentialed and deemed worthy of aggressive communications.

Then, grimpact gets taken up by group identity dynamics that are immune to all the rationalistic, self-corrective mechanisms research has to offer — you know, retractions, stentorian denouncements, and heaps more research.

So grimpact uses science to get a foothold, and then tramples science as it becomes a phenomenon.

And because research culture has an “implicit optimism” about the effects of research, Derrick and Benneworth argue, it’s caught flat-footed by grimpact. We can only think about research having positive impact, not negative.

Interesting, all of it; and yet somehow too boutique. If we reserve “grimpact” for only those edge cases that have perfect storms of researcher, research community and user irresponsibility and that build into contagion, that allows the rest of us off the hook for our own negative impacts.

What if we called “grimpact” any large negative impact of your research? And tried to account for it before we marketed your research, instead of cleaning up afterwards?

Derrick and Benneworth link to another post on LSE Impact Blog by Andrew Crane, which starts out with a riveting account of ethnographic research on labor issues in the South Indian garment industry — which could result in closing the factories (and the workers becoming unemployed, and the workers are asking you not to publish the research). The research is designed to generate lots of impact, as funders and policymakers and researchers currently define it. But what about the negative impact on the sector? Is that your concern as a researcher? Or as a research communicator?

And why aren’t we thinking “grimpact” around the way we’ve framed and communicated research on ecosystem decline and climate change?

We want impact. We also don’t want grimpact. That means we need to game out the ramifications of pushing particular research conclusions and messages in particular contexts. Such a careful practice wouldn’t be antithetical to research. It would just be responsible messaging.

Proposed: We include not just impact goals in all our research communications, but grimpact assessments — who and what we want to influence, how what we say might be misread and taken up to cross-purposes of our intentions, and what measures we might take in those events and how we will measure their impact.

Tell me: what could go wrong?