Still time to influence the impact agenda 1

December 3, 2009

The research impact debate has already run a lively course. Impact is an integral part of the proposed research excellence framework - a fact that has caused concern in some quarters of the academic community ("Managers and scholars divided as resistance grows to impact agenda", 5 November). The Higher Education Funding Council for England does not claim to have the criteria for assessing impact right yet, which is why it is asking us for help. We need to engage constructively rather than issue blanket rejections.

The assessment of impact should not be seen as a threat to fundamental research. We have great stories to tell about blue-skies research that has had enormous societal and economic impact. This is our opportunity to tell more of those stories.

Nobody doubts that universities can help address the huge societal and global challenges we face. Universities themselves have much to gain from such engagement and from reflecting upon the impact of their research. How to realise these mutual benefits is just one of the many lessons we are learning as part of the Beacons for Public Engagement initiative.

We are discovering a huge appetite for engagement inside and outside our universities, and we are delighted that the funders - Research Councils UK, the higher education funding councils and the Wellcome Trust - are starting to explore better ways to encourage all universities to support and value engagement.

The impact proposals outlined in the REF consultation are important because they provide opportunities to value this kind of engagement with the public, communities, policymakers, business and civil society. They also constitute a welcome acknowledgement that it is important to invest resources and time in this kind of activity, challenging though it can be. It is important that the principle is acknowledged in the REF, even though we are still working out how to do it.

Rather than draw up battle lines, we should explore how universities can face up positively to the responsibilities that public funding and intellectual independence bring.

If we fail here, the sector will be less likely to win essential public support in a period of funding cuts. Fortunately, there is still time to contribute, gain clarity and, together, find practical ways forward. We recommend this option.

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