Partly inspired by a twitter conversation and partly to try to bring some semblance of order my own thoughts, I’m going to have a go about writing about impact. Roughly, I’d argue that:
- The impact agenda is – broadly – a good thing
- Although there are areas of uncertainty and plenty of scope for collective learning, I think the whole area is much less opaque than many commentators seem to think
- While the Research Councils and the REF have a common definition of ‘impact’, they’re looking at it from different ends of the telescope.
This post will come in three parts. In part one, I’ll try to sketch a bit of background and say something position of impact in the REF. In part two, I’ll turn to the Research Councils and think about how ‘impact’ differs from previous different – but related – agendas. In part three, I’ll pose some questions that are puzzling me about impact and test my thinking with examples.
What’s going on? Where’s it come from? What’s driving it? I’d argue that to understand the impact agenda properly, it’s important to first understand the motivations. Broadly speaking, I think there are two.
Firstly, I think it arises from a worry about a gap between academic research and those who might find it useful in some way. How may valuable insights of various kinds from various disciplines have never got further than an academic journal or conference? While some academics have always considered providing policy advice or writing for practitioner journals as a key part of their role as academics, I’m sure that’s not universally true. I can imagine some of these researchers now complaining like music obsessives that they were into impact before anyone else and it sold out and went all mainstream. As I’ve argued previously, one advantage of the impact agenda is that it gives engaged academics some long overdue recognition, as well as a much greater incentive for others to become involved in impact related activities.
Secondly, I think it’s about finding concrete, credible, and communicable evidence of the importance and value of academic research. If we want to keep research funding at current levels, there’s a need to show return on investment and that the taxpayer is getting value for money. Some will cringe at the reduction of the importance and value of research to such crude and instrumentalist terms, but we live in a crude and instrumentalist age. There is an overwhelming case for the social and economic benefits of research, and that case must be made. Whether we like it or not, no government of any likely hue is just going to keep signing the cheques. The champions of research in policy circles do not intend to go naked into the conference chamber when they fight our corner. To what extent the impact agenda comes directly from government, or whether it’s a pre-emptive move, I’m not quite sure. But the effect is pretty much the same.
What’s Impact in the REF?
The REF definition of impact is as follows:
140. For the purposes of the REF, impact is defined as an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia (as set out in paragraph 143).
141. Impact includes, but is not limited to, an effect on, change or benefit to:
• the activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding
• of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals
• in any geographic location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally.
142. Impact includes the reduction or prevention of harm, risk, cost or other negative effects.
Assessment Framework and Guidance on Submissions, page 26.
Paragraph 143 goes on to rule out academic impact on the grounds that it’s assessed in the outputs and environment section. Fair enough. More controversially, it goes on to state that “impacts on students, teaching, and other activities within the submitting HEI are excluded”. But it’s possible to understand the reasoning. If it were included, there’s a danger that far too impact case studies would be about how research affects teaching – and while that’s important, I don’t think we’d want it to dominate. There’s also an argument that the link between research and teaching ought to be so obvious that there’s no need to measure it for particular reward. In practical terms, I think it would be hard to measure. I might know how my new theory has changed how I teach my module on (say) organisational behaviour to undergraduates, but it would be hard to track that change across all UK business schools. I’d also worry about the possible perverse incentives on the shape of the curriculum that allowing impact on teaching might create.
The Main Panel C (the panel for most social sciences) criteria state that:
The main panel acknowledges that impact within its remit may take many forms and occur in a wide range of spheres. These may include (but are not restricted to): creativity, culture
and society; the economy, commerce or organisations; the environment; health and welfare; practitioners and professional services; public policy, law and services.
The categories used to define spheres of impact, for the purpose of this document, inevitably overlap and should not be taken as restrictive. Case studies may describe impacts which have affected more than one sphere. (para 77, pg. 68)
There’s actually a lot of detail and some good illustrations of what forms impact might take, and I’d recommend having a read. I wonder how many academics not directly involved in REF preparations have read this? One difficulty is finding it – it’s not the easiest document to track down. For my non-social science reader(s), the other panel working methods can be found here. Helpfully, nothing on that page will tell you which panel is which, but (roughly) Panel A is health and life sciences; B is natural sciences, computers, maths and engineering; C is social science; and D humanities. Each panel criteria document has a table with examples of impact.
What else do we know about the place of impact in the REF? Well, we know that impact has to have occurred in the REF period (1 January 2008 to 31 July 2013) and that impact has to be underpinned by excellent research (at least 2*) produced at the submitting university at some point between 1 January 1993 and 31 December 2013. It doesn’t matter if the researchers producing the research are still at the institution – while publications move with the author, impact stays with the institution. However, I can’t help wondering if an excessive reliance on research undertaken by departed staff won’t look too much like trading on past glories. But probably it’s about getting the balance right. The number of case studies required is approximately 1 per 8 FTE submitted, but see page 28 of the guidance document for a table.
Impact will have a weighting of 20%, with environment 15% and outputs (publications) 65%, and it looks likely that the weighting of impact will increase next time. However, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the actual contribution ends up being less than that. If there’s a general trend that overall scores for impact are lower than that of (say) publications, then the contribution will end up being less than 20%. My understanding is that for some units of assessment, environment was consistently rated more highly, thus de facto increasing the weighting. Unfortunately this is just a recollection of something I read years ago, and which I can’t now find. But if this is right, and if impact does come in with lower marks overall, we neglect environment at our peril.