Impact 'support' is shaky

July 8, 2010

David Sweeney of the Higher Education Funding Council for England has a "positive" story to tell about how pilot studies and meetings have converted the academic community to the idea of measuring "impact" in the research excellence framework ("Impact hostility is 'melting away'", 1 July). I do not think he should take what comes out of such exercises at face value.

At the "consultation" meetings I have been to or heard about, delegates have been told (or it has been implied) that impact is happening anyway. So the only way to influence matters is to act in a positive fashion rather than by outright opposition, which would be ignored. Phrases such as "the government is committed to impact" have been used.

Hence academics, not wanting to be naughty in the face of authority and power, go along with the idea of impact and think of clever stuff to say about it, as they can do.

Pragmatism and the desire to do the best they can for their particular subjects, plus the institutional weight behind the plans, mean that those few who have participated in impact exercises collaborate. Hefce then reports this as support within the sector for the agenda, despite thousands of academics signing petitions deploring the pseudoscientific idea of measuring impact and its conflation with research excellence.

Impact has been cheerfully embraced by many academic administrators, but then they habitually swallow uncritically the latest fad about how we can "add value going forward", and hold lots of meetings about it, as is their wont. However, most academics still despair at the impact agenda, which represents the worst excesses of the previous administration's enthusiasm for managerialist nonsense.

James Ladyman, Professor of philosophy, University of Bristol.

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