Consensual impact

December 1, 2011

In "Dutch lessons for an impact agenda that satisfies all parties" (17 November), Paul Benneworth contrasts the Netherlands' approach to impact with the UK's. The title attracted my attention, not only because of the word "impact", but also because as a Dutch national having spent close to two decades in the UK, I am always intrigued by such comparisons. I am usually equally amused and irritated by misperceptions of both countries.

Take Benneworth's assertion of growing opposition to impact in the UK, and his suggestion that a debate in true Dutch consensual style would help to overcome it. Leaving aside my personal amusement at the reference to the rather direct Dutch as "consensual", I would argue that a consensus on how to assess and increase impact is already developing here. This is visible through the in-depth work undertaken by the research excellence framework's panel members (the majority of whom are scholars) to develop sensible criteria; the growing portfolio of research council impact-evaluation studies; and the fact that applicants for research council funding and peer reviewers are engaging with the "Pathways to impact" proposals.

This is a sophisticated consensus that recognises the complexity of impact, how it can be achieved and the different responsibilities of researchers, funders and users of research in the process. Most importantly, it recognises that funders and academics must work together to continue to refine our impact-assessment methods.

The councils' application processes have for some time requested that applicants consider the potential beneficiaries of their research. In the past few years, that question has become more specific. It does not ask anyone to predict what impact their research will have at the end of a one-, two- or even five-year project: that would be downright silly. What we do ask scholars for is a considered view about who might be interested in using their findings and how the likelihood of take-up might be increased.

There are striking similarities between how this question is being handled in the UK and the Netherlands: both nations emphasise that "knowledge utilisation" (or pathways to impact) should be tailored to specific research projects; both acknowledge that knowledge utilisation may be inappropriate in some cases; and both recognise that such activities require funding.

Questions about ways to improve the likelihood of impact are analogous to queries about the feasibility of the research itself and the methods to be employed. Both the selected research and the chosen engagement methods will be assessed for their appropriateness and likelihood of success. Both will require and can expect appropriate funding.

This brings me to the one part of the article I really disagreed with: Benneworth states that Dutch scientists are not responsible for exploiting their research findings. I think it is proper that in the UK, researchers are responsible for more than the dissemination of their research. What is needed is engagement with the users of research, preferably early on in the project and then sustained throughout it. This is vital to improving the chances of a quick and effective uptake of the findings.

This is not, however, the sole responsibility of individual researchers: it must be shared with departments and universities, which need to provide practical and strategy support. There is also equal responsibility on research users to be receptive, to help shape the work and to develop the capacity to use it. Simply making findings as accessible as possible (as Benneworth suggests) risks much research with economic and societal value never achieving its potential.

Benneworth concludes by challenging funders, government and researchers to compromise. But much of this compromising is already under way in the shape of a shared understanding of how best to achieve and assess impact. Research Councils UK will continue to work with the nation's academic community on this, as well as with our counterparts in Europe and beyond, to share best practice and to learn more about how we can achieve and assess impact to contribute to sustainable growth and the well-being of all.

Astrid Wissenburg, Chair of Research Councils UK Impact Group, Director of partnerships and communications, Economic and Social Research Council

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