Brace for impact: making the most of your research

We may be stuck with impact, so best to make the most of it, says John Tregoning

November 18, 2015
research funding impact
Source: iStock

Given the impending doom of the spending review, academics are becoming more mindful of what is expected of them by their political paymasters. A recurring piece of rhetoric around universities is that research should have “impact”. But what does impact really mean, is it a valid metric and should you be chasing it?

Impact is the new translation

Impact, defined on the Research Councils UK web pages as “positive impact in our society and economy…through knowledge exchange, new products…and so on”, is the potential of the research to make changes in the real world outside the university gates. It is different from “high-impact” papers – another different kind of evil, another gripe, another blog. Making research quantifiable and beneficial is a noble-sounding ideal and much/some/a little (delete as applicable) of the research performed has a clear and quantifiable impact – eventually.

Lost in translation

I have two concerns with using impact as a metric. First, I believe it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict which new avenues of basic research will have the most impact. Second, I believe too great a focus on impact can harm innovation, leading to shorter-term thinking and a narrowing of the horizon. A clinical trial of a drug is clearly closer to impact than understanding the crystal structure of a molecule, but the drug may have been designed based on crystal structures generated decades ago. If we cut the root of research today, we won’t be able to deliver the fruit of clinical trials tomorrow. Think of the laser, green fluorescent protein, the structure of DNA and monoclonal antibodies. All of these were discovered and developed with minimal consideration of impact or their possible industrial applications but now underpin vast industries.

Blue-sky impact

Ideally, we would get rid of impact as a metric altogether. University research labs should be viewed as feeder blue-sky labs. Owing to financial pressures, many companies no longer sustain pure-science basic-research facilities. Universities can fill this gap, playing to the strengths of both partners – academics have time to develop random thoughts; industry has the cash and the experience to see things to market. Yes, that does mean that publicly funded research supports private industry, but since we are told that one of our major functions should be to spark economic growth, this is a good thing.

Past performance equals future impact (maybe)

Sadly, in this age of metrics for everything, vaguely asserting that research has downstream benefits is probably insufficient. So how should impact be measured? I would argue that at an individual level, past performance is an ineffective metric, biasing towards more established groups, when historically disruptive innovation comes from outsiders, new starters and people with less to lose. However, assessing the impact of previous work at an institutional level is effective. Although time-consuming (and costly), the impact studies in the 2014 research excellence framework (REF) did clearly show how universities add value. Institutions with a history of impactful work over a longer time period are, I believe, more likely to deliver it again in the future. In academia, the larger institutions have the reputation to pull in the best thinkers, the resources to support them and the infrastructure to enable researchers to research.

Game it

Sadly, my saying that impact is an inappropriate metric is not going to change the system (although I am happy for Jo Johnson, the minister for universities and science, to prove me wrong). We are stuck with impact and therefore need to play the game by writing awe-inspiring impact statements. In these times of slender research budgets, grants have been won or lost on the perceived quality of the impact. Read the advice on the RCUK pages and get tips from academic mentors. But to take it a step further, be inventive. This is the one part of the grant where you can just make stuff up* – it is hard enough quantifying impact objectively after the work is done, it is impossible to quantify impact before the work is done. So say that your research can cure cancer, cancel Third World debt and fix the ozone layer, because you know what, some of it will.

* This is for comic effect to emphasise a point – I would never make anything up. My work WILL cure the common cold (in the space of a three-year project).

John Tregoning is senior lecturer in the mucosal infection and immunity section of virology at Imperial College London. He runs a blog on academic life.

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Reader's comments (2)

Please explain why you seem to believe that a national protest against the metric of impact will have no effect. If every UK academic would sign a letter saying that this is childish, mendacious, and ludicrous, at least the government would have heard the truth. And the UK's academic collaborators would be exposed.
Impactless. Let us not forget that impact is an effect of collision. In this case, it may be the a collision between the moronic wish to control the progress of human knowledge by deciding who will get funding for experiments and who will be sidelined from the system and the university that supports creativity, academic standards, human curiosity, the study of the past and present and the imagination of the future. At the very least, it diverts the attention of those who are in position to contribute to the sciences and to the arts (the impact game destroys the concentration) from the significant work in their respective areas and scatters it to the behaviours that mostly please the game-players and other bureaucrats. The prostitution of science is now formalised and taught. But if you do not like the term, then I come back to the author's reassurance that he will have cured the common cold in 3 years (my personal experience is that it lasted less! :) - When Queen Mary started destroying those academics who hadn't attracted certain level of public or private investment to their field of enquiry, I tried to explain the problem to the bureaucrat who seemed to think the College was being rational in the same way. Was it obvious why solving gaps in knowledge by command would fail? Society cannot replace the value of nurturing good citizens and academics working for the public good. The UK will pay dearly that it has allowed the Universities to be run by detached managers who slaughter those involved in higher education and scientific research. And we scientists or artists or educators are not there for managers to make profit. Hopefully we will react more rationally and in an organized manner before it is too late.

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