The impact agenda is starting to fail those it was meant to benefit

In chasing REF points, academics may risk their public standing and undermine work with potentially profound effects, argues Mark Reed

May 5, 2016
James Fryer illustration (5 May 2016)
Source: James Fryer

The introduction of impact to the research excellence framework and to research council applications was meant to herald a revolution in the way UK academics do research. It has been held up as an example that is already being followed internationally. However, the revolution is faltering.

The impact agenda is beginning to fall flat on many of the people who were meant to benefit from it. We urgently need to find a way to revive its weakening heart if we want to prevent it from discrediting the academic community and causing more harm than good.

With the research budgets of government departments being slashed, policymakers need evidence from the research community more than ever. Thankfully, last month, Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, confirmed that researchers in receipt of public funding will be exempt from a new anti-lobbying clause that applies to publicly funded charities. However, there remains a growing sense of exasperation within Whitehall and beyond at the well-meaning but ill-informed and sometimes inappropriate advances of researchers whose primary motivation for engaging is career progression.

I have heard with my own ears a principal investigator tell a roomful of stakeholders that he wanted to “use” them to generate impact for his REF submission. No doubt few other PIs would be silly enough to actually say this out loud (needless to say, the comment did not go down well, and I subsequently quit the project), but I wonder how many researchers are thinking along similar lines.

Meanwhile, the volume of requests from the research community before the previous REF was so high that some large companies imposed a blanket ban on providing testimonials to any university. Only researchers with friends in high places in such companies managed to get through the wall of silence.

If you believe last year’s study commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, “The Nature, Scale and Beneficiaries of Research Impact”, the last REF demonstrated the wide range of impact that UK research has on society and the economy. However, as those of us who wrote up case studies that were not selected for submission will know, the 7,000 submitted studies are just the highly polished tip of the iceberg.

There is now a grave risk that universities, having seen exactly what makes a top-ranking case study, will be even more selective about what they submit to the next REF. Some types of impact, such as awareness-raising and conceptual impact via public engagement, may be less likely to be submitted if they appear to have been rated less highly in 2014. In fact, this social construction of impact is occurring already, as universities decide at this early stage of the REF cycle which impacts to encourage and support. With the weighting of impact likely to be greater in the next REF, the stakes have never been higher for universities. However, if we conceive of impact in increasingly narrow and instrumentalist terms, we may rob society of the rich diversity of engagement with research that we currently enjoy.

The cynicism among “research users” is now so great that no amount of leadership from university managers or research funders can dispel it. We need a new breed of grass-roots leaders, who are passionate about making a difference and can inspire others to follow in their footsteps. There is evidence that such people are already emerging. Universities’ initial rush to appoint impact officers has now given way to a recognition that we also need academic “champions”: researchers who can empathise with the challenge of balancing impact with research, teaching and administration. Many of these roles are being elevated to director of impact posts equal in standing to more established directors of research. However, while most UK doctoral training schemes now offer impact training, those of us who did our PhDs long ago are being asked to operate far outside our comfort zones.

The good news, though, is that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist (or Brian Cox) to work out how your research can make more of a splash. Impact, ultimately, is about long-term, trusting, two-way relationships. Some of those might lead to impacts that can be reported for the REF, but others might not. The point is that we academics need to be in this for the long haul, rather than dropping partners as soon as the project is over, or as soon as it becomes apparent that it won’t help generate impact for the REF.

We need to reconnect academics with the concept at the heart of the impact agenda: empathy. If we don’t, wider society’s cynicism will only grow further. We still have a chance to save this faltering revolution, but time is running out.

Mark Reed holds the Higher Education Funding Council for England and N8 chair of socio-technical innovation at Newcastle University and is a visiting professor at the University of Leeds and at Birmingham City University. His book, The Research Impact Handbook, was published on 7 April.

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