Impact's impact could be the stifling of new ideas

LSE workshop participants warn of REF measure's 'deadening' effects. Rebecca Attwood reports

May 6, 2010

Academics who oppose plans to measure the economic and social impact of their research are not demanding a "licence to be irrelevant" or "absolute non-accountability", but believe that proposals on the topic are "impoverished and unconvincing".

They add that a focus on impact could even reduce opportunities for researchers to interact with the world beyond the academy.

The arguments were made last week during a workshop at the London School of Economics, alongside claims that the new measures would stifle major scientific innovation and penalise those who dared to think differently.

It was the responsibility of academics not only to challenge the proposals but also to offer alternatives, participants said at the event, The Impact of Impact.

Donald Gillies, professor of philosophy of science and mathematics at University College London, argued that one major flaw in the plans to measure impact in the forthcoming research excellence framework was the failure to take into account "delayed recognition".

He told the story of the Nobel prizewinning virologist Harald zur Hausen, who discovered the role of papilloma viruses in cervical cancer at a time when others were focusing on the theory that the disease was caused by the herpes virus.

If impact measures had been used in the 1970s, Professor zur Hausen's research group would have received a low "score" for considering papilloma viruses and its funding would have been cut off, Professor Gillies said.

As a result, the discovery would have been long delayed and the pharmaceutical industry would have lost large revenues from vaccine sales, he added.

Meanwhile, Mary Evans, visiting professor in sociology and gender at the LSE, pointed out that impact was not necessarily positive: it could also be about the transmission of "wrong" or misguided ideas.

Valerie Hey, professor of education at the University of Sussex, chose to highlight the "deadening" vocabulary of impact and its effect on scholars.

"It is like we are guilty until we are proven innocent, and we have to prove our innocence through our utility," she said.

Michael Power, professor of accounting at the LSE and author of The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification (1997), said that "lurking in the background" of the discussions was the "mythical model" of the individual research paper with an impact that could be traced to "users" who then changed their behaviour for the benefit of society.

But there was also discussion about whether academics had, in part, "got what they deserved".

Professor Power said that scholars had forgotten about the complex relationships between fields of research and areas of practice.

He argued that academics had a responsibility to come up with "more complex narratives of accountability".

It also emerged that the proposals were already leading to "strange behaviours": both Professor Hey and Professor Power admitted to keeping a file headed "impact".

"It is a vulgar and narcissistic activity - but I don't think I'm alone in this," Professor Power said.

"When a journalist talks to me, I say strange things such as: 'Would you mind dropping me an email and telling me how much you enjoyed talking to me?'"

He said that if the plans went ahead, there would be "a lot of gaming and managed 'impact' because we all have to survive, don't we?"

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