The public should help academics to define ‘impact’

Many more of the general public should help to plot the course of research, argue Christiaan De Beukelaer and Jan Baetens

July 21, 2016
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For academics, impact is becoming a way of life. Predicting and documenting the immediate applicability of our research is now a well-established part of the academic job description.

But while the political architects of the impact agenda may rejoice, there is mounting evidence that what we call the “impact imperative” is having grave unintended consequences.

A study earlier this year revealed that UK and Australian academics routinely resort to exaggeration and invention in their impact statements when applying for grants (“Academics ‘regularly lie to get research grants’”, News, 9 March). And, as Mark Reed warned in these pages recently, stakeholders are becoming increasingly frustrated by academics’ cynical motives and superficial forms of engagement (“The impact agenda is starting to fail those it was meant to benefit”, Opinion, 6 May).

In our view, the solution is to rethink what impact is so that it better serves the needs of society and academia by becoming the shared responsibility of both parties, not of academics alone.

In debates on impact, the point is often made that research is inherently uncertain, with the corollary that demands for impact can only lead to conservatism in choice of research topic. Less often articulated is the equally important point that the impact agenda is part of a wider move among research funders away from blue-sky research and towards a more call-oriented approach. This means that academics can no longer choose to pursue the research they regard as most useful to society, and that they may have to waste time and energy negotiating predefined impact expectations from funders that are unclear or unrealistic.

This brings us to the heart of the matter. Academics do not reject impact – on the contrary – but they often feel unhappy with how it is defined. The solution requires renegotiating that definition through dialogue between universities, funding bodies and society at large.

Such a dialogue is now perfectly possible. Increased access to higher education since the 1950s has meant that more people than ever have been trained to read, analyse, critique and conduct research. Members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reported an average participation rate in tertiary education of 40 per cent – up from 26 per cent in 2000.

Furthermore, the open access movement in academic publishing, while far from perfect, means that more research papers than ever are available to those outside universities. Are we not entitled to expect graduates in the workforce and the general public to show the curiosity and commitment to engage with research findings relevant to them?

If society at large wants academic research to have impact, it is incumbent on society itself to share the burden of creating workable and sustainable definitions of the kinds of things it wants. Impact can enrich the thinking and commitment of university workers provided that all stakeholders can agree on a version of it that is compatible with academic freedom.

Grant calls should be radically reimagined. Instead of there being a single call, whose terms are often dictated by short-term political and industrial concerns (often heavily influenced by lobbyists), a larger social debate should be carried out, in which there would be room for competing calls, including ones that make room for “failure”.

In addition, we should remember that most academics spend most of their time teaching at various levels, from freshman courses to PhD supervision. It is a crucial error to exclude the impact of this kind of work from the evaluation of impact, precisely because it helps to create an educated society that can both engage with academic work and take part in debates about impact.

Academics should not hide in the ivory tower, but neither should non-academics refuse to re-enter it after they graduate. Its doors remain wide open. Surely it is not too much to ask for policymakers, journalists, non-governmental organisations and industry researchers to make a greater effort to access its treasures without being begged by harassed academics to do so?

Christiaan De Beukelaer is a lecturer in cultural policy at the University of Melbourne. Jan Baetens is professor in cultural and literary studies at KU Leuven.

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