Removing pathways to impact could see research lose its way

UKRI’s decision to axe the impact sections of grant applications could hobble consideration of the process and politics of research, says Jude Fransman

January 29, 2020

The impact agenda, which has engulfed the UK’s higher education for the past decade, has always been something of a double-edged sword.

That it because it was built around competing interests. On the one hand, it has certainly facilitated the encroaching commodification of higher education, through instruments like the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the upcoming Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), which is due to start in February. These tend to privilege quantitative measures of largely economic outcomes and problematically attribute change to individual researchers, projects or research institutions, as opposed to collaborative relationships and processes set within broader processes of social change.

On the other hand, the institutionalisation of impact has also opened a window of opportunity for a greater focus on the importance of collaborative research and the contexts and processes of collaboration, as opposed to just inputs and outputs.

The highly controversial “pathways to impact” and “impact summary” sections on UK Research and Innovation’s grant application forms – which the government has signalled that it intends to scrap, in a blitz on “unnecessary” research bureaucracy – are problematic in many ways, not least in their lack of clear assessment criteria and excessive openness to interpretation.

However, they also force applicants to engage not just with the anticipated social and economic benefits of their research proposal, but also with strategies for enabling those benefits to materialise. This means having to think about the contexts of implementation and use, the different types of stakeholders (direct beneficiaries or intermediaries) that your research might engage with, and the different interests of those stakeholders.

The impact sections of funding applications also allow reviewers to assess whether due consideration has been given to the interests of partners and collaborators, and whether they have been adequately involved in the application design.

For research that is funded through the UK’s overseas aid budget, there is a legal requirement (deriving from the definition of overseas development assistance) to consider the geopolitics of impact, the benefits of research to lower income countries and the fairness and equitability of pathways to impact.

There is also a more general, instrumental argument that any research that seeks to address the urgent and complex social and environmental challenges of our time, such as climate crisis or global health pandemics, will necessarily involve collaboration that crosses national boundaries and professional sectors as well as disciplines. Such complex collaborations demand complex pathways to impact, and UKRI’s unformatted two-page form, coupled with the shorter summary section, provided the steer as well as the necessary space to develop this.

According to UKRI, “impact is now a core consideration throughout the grant application process” and what is now needed is “to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the processes we use”. But if there is no replacement for the impact sections on UKRI grant application forms after they are axed in March, it is likely that research applications will revert to being assessed on the basis of academic excellence, contributions to disciplinary knowledge and strategic relevance to research council priorities.

And while there is a perfectly valid rationale for Dominic Cummings’ war on bureaucracy and UKRI’s broader shift from assessing inputs to focusing on outputs (which might be captured through live scientometrics), there is a real risk that a more critical consideration of the process and politics of research will be lost.

In other words, an agenda of efficiency and effectiveness, allowing UKRI to “invest in the best ideas and people” as commodities, may well come at the expense of the kind of equitable and ecological research needed both to expand our disciplinary knowledge and respond to the intractable social and environmental challenges facing our world.

Jude Fransman is a research fellow in the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University and co-convenor of the Rethinking Research Collaborative.

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