Who benefits from the impact agenda?

Ansgar Allen questions the motives of a growing band of champions

November 6, 2014

The impact agenda provides an institutionally approved route to making a difference that claims political authenticity

When it was first unveiled, the impact agenda was treated with open contempt by academics.

It was seen as another manifestation of a creeping audit culture in the academy: another hoop to jump through. The language of impact was bolted on to research applications, with key stakeholders and “users” identified as the unsuspecting recipients of dissemination events planned for the end of the project. Beyond that, many hoped it would be more or less business as usual.

More recently, such cynicism has been overtaken by a more genuine engagement. This is particularly true in the social sciences, which celebrate impact through annual Oscar-style awards run by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Its growing band of champions bill the impact agenda as an opportunity to dramatically transform how the university engages with its public. Instead of the old, purportedly one-directional, academic-to-beneficiary style of research – which is dismissed as unresponsive to people’s needs, intellectually presumptuous and undemocratic – stakeholders are now asked to define from the outset how they would like to benefit from research projects, sometimes even being invited to co-construct them.

But it is worth asking whether the cynicism has really disappeared. Some researchers clearly view impact as an opportunity to argue that the social sciences deserve more than their current 12 per cent share of the total research income flowing to UK universities. After all, who could be better placed to champion the social impact of research than those who study the social?

But there is a deeper cynicism at work too. The most enthusiastic supporters of impact use it to make a show of their political radicalism – which, unfortunately, is more apparent than real. Despite the rhetoric of the former education secretary Michael Gove, the left-wing “Blob” is not a force to be reckoned with. Progressives have been on the run for decades and are struggling to come to terms with their political impotence. The impact agenda provides a welcome distraction: an institutionally approved route to making a difference that claims political authenticity by involving its “beneficiaries” from the outset.

With the gap between would-be academic benefactor and lay beneficiary seemingly collapsed, the academic no longer feels obliged to develop and pursue a definite politics: since the research now seems to be grounded in the priorities of its participants, it appears to require no intervening ideology. Of course, progressive academics are unwilling to appear completely devoid of a creed, so they promote the impact agenda itself as the intrinsic good of research. Better research, quite simply, is research that has more impact.

The impact agenda also attracts those who are rightly preoccupied with the claimed indignity of speaking on behalf of others, of subjecting research participants to the selectively brutal objectivities of science. Yet, here again, the apparent generosity of openly negotiated research projects conceals a more self-serving motive: the easing of researchers’ bad conscience. In effect, the impact agenda serves as a welcome diversion from the violence that research entails, cultivating the illusion that non-academic participants are equal partners and forgetting that they are also raw materials for auditable research.

Despite all this, the impact agenda still opens up the prospect of a more honest and radical engagement between researchers and their public, allowing the objects of research not only to influence how that research is carried out, but also to question the relationship that situates them without fail as the assumed beneficiaries of that great benefactor: the research university. This could unsettle the basic assumption that drives university life, which is that we could always do with more research. The objects of research would ask academics what they promise in return, and after hearing our reply, might say: thank you very much, but we really would prefer it if you left us out of it.

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