No impact when stuck in neutral

April 14, 2016

David Walker’s piece on how we know too little about the impact of the Economic and Social Research Council sounds pretty spot on to me (“Is the ESRC below the radar or out of the loop?”, Opinion, 7 April).

Thinking back to my days of working with the ESRC when the “impact agenda” was in its infancy, I always felt that the ESRC as an organisation, despite encouraging researchers to look for ways to have “impact”, never saw the concept of knowledge exchange and impact as being anything to do with the ESRC itself.

At that time (2007 to 2009), there seemed to be an overwhelming anxiety among many of its staff that the ESRC should be seen as an entirely neutral administrative body that would never dream of engaging with the research it was funding for fear that it would be seen as “interfering” with or influencing the research. I found this deeply frustrating as the very area of research in which our programme was engaged (higher education impact) was ripe for helping the ESRC to better understand how it, and the work it funded, helped to make an impact.

There seemed to be a contradiction in the ESRC fervently wanting its funded researchers to “engage” and exchange views with external bodies including policymakers, other funders and politicians, but not being able to see that researchers wanted also to engage with the ESRC and thought that the ESRC’s views and needs in relation to understanding impact were just as important as those of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and devolved governments.

There were of course some individual exceptions to this, but the organisational culture seemed to emphasise the “administration” of awards over any actual engagement with the research. I can’t help feeling that this led to the ESRC being “out of the loop” as this article suggests, which will have shaped at least some of the future research agenda by default.

Ursula Kelly

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