They're not unreasonable

Impact statements are intended ultimately to benefit society, argues Dave Delpy, not interfere with funding

November 26, 2009

Iwish to dispel some myths about impact statements in grant proposals and clarify what we at Research Councils UK are seeking and why.

Impact statements were introduced as part of a process to help academics change the way they think about their research, not to change the research they do. Considering our work's potential from the beginning may accelerate the impact and allows us to communicate the importance of what we do. It also reminds us that research is ultimately about offering solutions to society's challenges.

Much of the difficulty some academics have with impact statements is based on a narrow interpretation of what we hope to achieve.

The petition sent to the No 10 website requested the "reversal of the Research Councils' and Higher Education Funding Council for England's policy to direct funds to projects whose outcomes are determined to have a significant 'impact'". This is a significant misrepresentation. If this were the limit of my understanding of what the research councils intended, I might have been inclined to add my own name. I wonder how many signed on the basis of this misleading statement.

For new readers, the term "economic impact" does not mean just "financial benefit". It was described carefully in the original report of Peter Warry, who was then chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, as having potential impact on society or government policy as well as financial benefit. Unfortunately, those who take exception to outlining the potential of their work seem to have overlooked these social and cultural aspects of the definition.

Another myth is the idea that those involved in blue-skies research will be compromised by the introduction of impact statements, as the research councils focus their attention on applied research to service the economy. This could not be further from the truth. The councils have consistently maintained that fundamental research must be at the heart of what we do.

Recently I have read that some believe it is impossible to predict the economic impact of blue-skies research. To be clear, we are not asking for accurate predictions - simply a consideration of potential. Basic research underpins all disciplines and builds pathways to new technologies with economic and social applications. It may build on an existing body of knowledge, connect to other research around the world or attract new industries to the UK. There are many routes to impact. I believe that I could write a statement indicating potential impact for any proposal I have seen, and to hear that bright academics say they can't do it sounds a little disingenuous.

I believe the maxim that there is only applied research and research that's yet to be applied. However, applicants who feel that their research is not likely to have an obvious impact should simply state that in their application. Rest assured that international excellence will always be our priority and if your work is excellent then the peers who consider your proposal will not want to miss the opportunity to assist you.

Those who remain convinced that this is an unreasonable request may consider how that position looks to a wider audience. In most other areas of major public expenditure - health, policing, education and so on - there is rigorous accountability and the benefits of investment are clear for all to see. This is harder to see in research. The Government has doubled science funding over the past ten years because it believes this is a way to benefit the UK. We must make sure this investment is not just an act of faith. Some may have forgotten that providing solutions to economic and social challenges is what the funding is for and we have a duty to the Government and public to explain the return on that investment.

What I find frustrating is that, in the UK's most difficult economic period since the 1930s, some people cannot see that it is unreasonable to refuse to at least think about the impact of our work. That does not mean we have to conduct our research in the short term to demonstrate its financial benefit, but we do have to develop the habit of articulating the long-term benefits of our work and understand that doing so is very much in our own interests.

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