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When funders are deciding which research projects to underwrite, they inevitably look at the probable return on investment (ROI) of the research. Funding is competitive, so they want to make sure their support will have the maximum effect. This means that when researchers and institutions pursue funding, they must demonstrate the potential impact of the work.

“The classic mistake is thinking it’s all about tech or IP, thinking that ‘I just have to have great science and a great patent and everything will work out,’ ” says Frank Rimalovski, executive director of New York University’s Entrepreneurial Institute.

Impact doesn’t necessarily mean something that will change the world in the next five years. Ideally, a result would have an immediate practical and commercializable application, but the nature of research is uncertain. Then again, even research with negative results can be beneficial in guiding future efforts.

Look for the practical impact

Rimalovski says that the world of research is becoming increasingly focused on producing efforts that can translate quickly to the commercial sphere. Today, unlike 20 years ago, when most innovations entered the market through licensing, startups are now at the heart of innovation. Faculty and PhD students are putting their ideas into action by creating companies that revolve around their innovations.

This means that when demonstrating impact to funders, researchers must emphasize the practical impact of their research instead of only focusing on its scientific value.

“What I want to see is diseases diagnosed and cured, the air cleaner, energy consumption reduced. That’s where societal good is, and that’s why they’re funding the research,” says Rimalovski. “Startups play an increasingly important role in that.”

Focusing only on the academic importance of research is one of the biggest mistakes researchers make when applying for funding. Of course, not every research product or patent is immediately viable, but it’s important to note where the research is going and how it might get there in the future.

Find ways to make an impact

It’s inevitable that sometimes research won’t have the outcome you hoped for. Sometimes results are negative, and you’re left without the innovation you hoped to achieve. This doesn’t mean you can’t provide at least some ROI to your research, though.

Many researchers don’t bother to publish papers with negative results, but failing to publish is the single worst thing a researcher can do. Society can’t benefit at all from the research in this case, and the funding money is truly wasted. Even if your results are negative, you can write a paper about them and make the data Open Access through your university’s repository.

This way, at least other scientists can evaluate the data for their own projects or to find trends in it you may have missed. Providing the results is also a good way to show funders that, regardless of the outcome of your research, you will help society get the maximum benefit out of it.

In a time when funding is extremely competitive, it’s not enough to have an interesting research question that will simply increase society’s understanding of a subject. It’s important to emphasize the practical implications of research and how it might be actively used by society, usually via commercialization. Scientists must help others benefit from their work, regardless of its outcome.

As Rimalovski observes, “Even in the early days, when research is pre-revenue, the question is what is the path you’re on and the destination you’re working toward."