Three things about impact that you need to know

Even before REF2014 was submitted, impact had become an industry. Universities began hiring more impact staff, reconfiguring research departments and restructuring research management offices to maximise their impact. It became a buzzword across institutional strategies, and university websites began straining under the weight of impact peacocking.

But are we any better at it? I spend a lot of time travelling to other institutions helping them to think about impact: group training, one-to-one consultations, institutional impact ‘health checks’ and the like. It’s clear that, despite the wealth of effort being poured into impact, and some fabulous people, impact is still undermined by some common unchecked practices and misbeliefs.

There is a need for what I call ‘impact literacy’, or mastering the ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘what’ of impact. However, before we can become literate, we need to understand and overcome the three most common misunderstandings of impact. 

Accept that the route to impact is not linear, and embrace the opportunities this offers

Straightforward and linear

The REF impact database forever locks in stories of impact like perfect, sunset-framed memories of a glossy holiday romance. Don’t get me wrong, the case studies are seriously impressive and give us real insights into what real world change is possible. But they shouldn’t be taken as blueprints for impact.

There’s no sense of the pathways that didn’t play out smoothly, the possibilities that didn’t happen, or those which weren’t big or measurable enough to be considered ‘worthy’. By definition the case studies are filtered, selective and present only the most positive of images; like a well-constructed Tinder profile, or the gilded memory of a long lost love.

Impact has failures, tensions, risks and sideswipes, just as it has opportunities, light-bulb moments and satisfying wins. Enjoy the romance, but don’t pretend there’s not a cocktail-fuelled argument somewhere in the mix.

Valuable if REFable?

There are often mixed institutional messages about which agendas take priority. Many universities I encounter say they value impact beyond the REF, and I don’t doubt that’s the case.

However, when I speak to academics and research managers, there’s a fairly dispiriting sense that institutional Big Brother only values REF. This has significant implications for impact on the ground.

Invest in all forms of impact, not just those that can be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework

Although institutions may talk positively of all types of impact, in reality they often undervalue those with insufficient currency for the REF. Staff feel pressured to pursue only impacts that add to case studies, to the exclusion of all else, and impact officers are often employed to support REF alone.

Unless institutions focus similar attention on the broader efforts to embed and nurture impact, such as developing funding applications, broadening social outreach, and driving professional development, one impact agenda will always feel more equal than others. 

All about policy change

“If it’s not changing policy there’s no point”. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this mythical impact gold standard; as if impact is measured in REF carats. And it’s hugely concerning for several reasons.

First, policy is not the be all and end all. Of course policy change is fabulous, but unless it’s implemented what impact does your research really have?

Don’t concentrate only on research that leads to policy change

Second, chasing policy change in such an uncertain political landscape is hugely high risk; you’re effectively putting all your research eggs in one basket and relying on policymakers to want to, be able to, and stay in post long enough to use it.

Third, singularly chasing sparkly new policy risks overlooking those incredibly important opportunities to connect with real people around us and make real, meaningful change. I don’t remember James Bond saying ‘Nah, just leave the bad guys to shoot those innocent people, I’m off to a parliamentary focus group’. And if James Bond can’t convince you, no one can.

Julie’s top tips

  • Accept that the route to impact is not linear, and embrace the opportunities this offers.
  • Invest in all forms of impact, not just those that can be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework.
  • Don’t concentrate only on research that leads to policy change.

So have we got better at impact? Undoubtedly yes. We know more, we have more specialist staff and we have increasingly weaved impact into our research landscape. But we’ve still got a long way to go. REF 2014 certainly gave us a better idea of the necessary ingredients, but we need to recognise that there’s no single recipe or blueprint. Being literate will allow us to understand how impact works, and better still write our own scripts.

This blog first appeared on Research Professional and is posted here with its permission.

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