Blog: ‘Impact Not A Bad Thing Shocker’

Philip Cowley and Robert Ford describe a step change in their discipline’s engagement with the electorate

January 5, 2015

Here’s what is supposed to happen when you try to get academics involved in a project for non-academic consumption.

First, no one will be interested: too busy, too many other commitments, too insular. Why communicate with the world when we can write for obscure journals? 

Second, even those who are interested won’t be able to do it. Dulled by decades of writing for academic journals, they lack the tools, the language, the tone, to write for a broader audience.

And third, being academics, they won’t deliver on time so the hoped-for volume will arrive years late, or not at all. All in all, wiser heads will argue, it is not worth putting yourselves through such an ordeal.

And here’s the good news: that wasn’t our experience. When we pitched the idea of an electoral-behaviour-for-a-wider-audience book to the Political Studies Association’s specialist group on elections, we had more volunteers than we had space for chapters. (And we had 50 chapters.) We laid down ground rules. Just 1,000 words. No jargon. Only one table or graph, only if really needed, and only if a layperson could understand it. When we got to the ‘No Footnotes’ rule one woman in our audience did a good impression of a robot from an early sci-fi film: Does Not Compute, Does Not Compute, Head Explodes. And, yes, we had to exercise a fairly firm editorial hand: several people just ignored the rules, and sent in drafts with footnotes anyway. But the delete button is a wonderful thing.

Writing for a wider audience can be tough, but who raises their kids to avoid challenges? There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer says, “If something is too hard to do, then it’s not worth doing.” Homer shouldn’t be our role model. As for academics and deadlines, we wanted first drafts in by 1 February. The last arrived on 19 July. By academic standards, that’s almost ahead of schedule.

But perhaps the most striking thing about the project was that most of our 51 contributors were already well used to dealing with non-academic audiences. They already ran websites, or wrote for blogs, or for newspapers, or otherwise contributed to policy debates. In the book’s foreword, Danny Finkelstein of The Times claimed that there was a revolution under way in the way political scientists engaged with the world outside academia. They are, he said, “forcing their data and conclusions on those who should be allowed simply to ignore them”. Maybe it’s the research excellence framework (Impact Not A Bad Thing Shocker?) or maybe it’s the wider availability of tools to enable us to do this: social media – blogs, Facebook, Twitter, the whole lot – make it possible to elbow our way into debates in a way that wasn’t possible a decade ago.

The change in approach is obvious even over the course of the current Parliament. At the time of the last election, very few politics departments had research blogs. Those that did, such as the University of Nottingham or the London School of Economics, stood out because of their novelty. Now they are widespread. And look at the plethora of election forecasting projects. Academic psephologists have been election forecasting for years, but now we’re now telling people about it. Look at the work of the University of Oxford’s Stephen Fisher, or the University of East Anglia’s Chris Hanretty and Durham University’s Nick Vivyan, or the Polling Observatory project run by a Transatlantic team of obsessive poll-watchers. Look at the work of the election candidates project, run by Jennifer Hudson at University College London or Rosie Campbell at Birkbeck, University of London, or the multitude of political scientists offering insights during the Scottish independence referendum. All this is making data and findings available in a way that we have never done before. One of the constant tedious conversations after the last US election was to try to identify the UK’s Nate Silver – without noticing either that Silver’s predictions about the UK election in 2010 had been rubbish, or that we already had plenty of forecasters who were better.

There are still academics who are sniffy about engaging with the world outside academia. Their work, so they say, is just too sophisticated, too complicated, to disseminate to a wider audience. They operate at a higher level. Very occasionally, this might be true, but it’s usually self-justifying cobblers, masking the author’s laziness or the content’s tedium. And the good news is that mostly these people are older and will be dead soon. But it also fails to do justice to the audience outside the ivory tower. We found a tremendous public appetite for clearly argued and carefully conducted research. Curiosity, after all, is a universal human quality. One of the great things about being a researcher is the freedom to indulge it. Why not bring others along for the ride?  

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Reader's comments (1)

This sounds great. But I don't think it would count as 'impact' for the REF. I do a lot of blogging etc and none of it met criteria for an impact statement.Indeed, one of the criticisms of the REF agenda was that it adopted a very narrow definition that excluded this kind of activity: my understanding is that in your case you'd have had to have a chapter that was focused on a specific piece of research and then present hard evidence to demonstrate which audiences had read your chapter, and how their behaviour had changed as a consequence. So if there is a change toward more public engagement, I'd suggest it is more due to the impact of the internet and social media than to the REF.