Towards a Disruptive Impact Agenda

The drive towards research needing to demonstrate social benefit has gathered pace in recent years. Impact is now a substantive part of research life for many; to varying degrees, understood, accepted, embedded, integrated, internalised, loved, cherished, or indeed reviled with a fervent passion. But it’s here, and we’ve slowly gotten accustomed to it.

As a cadre of new impact-focused professionals have emerged, it is increasingly clear that behind the REF-focused veneer of seemingly identikit job descriptions, lies a straightforward desire to assist researchers in ensuring that their research is geared towards making a real world difference. This can no longer be viewed as a naïve aspiration, albeit each discipline presents an uneven field, where not all forms of research should as a matter of course be required to display potential ‘application’ as an obligatory badge of honour. Nonetheless, it is important that the sector holds on to this core principle, against the backdrop of income capture and assessment requirements. The context within which impact professionals work also raises further questions about the sustainability of current models, and about how reflective this work is of genuine social – rather than institutionally filtered – need.

This moment, less than 18 months until REF2021 submission, is an appropriate staging post at which to both take stock, and seek to disrupt the impact agenda. In three sessions, delivered at the June #PraxisAuril2019 and #ARMA2019 conferences – alongside an upcoming survey on institutional impact health, and a piece in Research Fortnight – we consider our ‘readiness level’ in the face of an HE environment in political turmoil. It is clear that as the impact community becomes increasingly networked and intermeshed, there has been a considerable investment of effort in sharing, and building upon good practice. However, there are areas that if left unchecked risk undoing the goal of further integrating impact into the normal rhythms of research support and delivery. We therefore issue a call to the sector to consider what we have learnt, and how targeted ‘disruptions’ might be needed to improve healthy practice. Some key principles include:

Firstly, working to fracture the conflation of impact with impact assessment. We must ensure the profession is calibrated towards supporting meaningful benefit to society, rather than bogged down in a matrix of perverse incentives. This tallies with an adjacent set of critiques of HE rankings (by Lizzie Gadd), that considers how briefing materials for senior leaders might inform the responsible use of indicators for better decision making. Alongside this, we should consider what we can learn from nascent impact assessment models in non-UK jurisdictions.

Secondly, encouraging an ethical re-anchoring of impact support. This must prioritise equalising  the voices of academics and non-academics, further considering the role of professionals and associated consultants working at the periphery of academia, recognising the need to work together to drive impact literacy across a disparate global research community.

Thirdly, sense checking the pursuit of impact unicorns via a re-centring of universities within a framework of civic need. This is manifest in the potential interplay between the REF and the KEF. In theory there should be little tension between the two, however challenges remain that arise from intra-institutional balancing of staff effort and strategic decisions around ‘what counts’ as impact. Accepting that the KEF, in its current manifestation, is not reflective of a wider approach to HE knowledge exchange and partnership working with industry, how might decisions be best anchored that balance university vision and staff capacity?

Fourthly, establishing long term, sustainable approaches to impact that leave institutions and their staff less vulnerable. Uneven phases of (REF) assessment and the political zeitgeist both introduce uncertainty. It is our contention that some of this can be controlled, and accordingly this is a pertinent time to challenge the impact agenda, re-conceptualising it as an integral part of a broad research ecosystem.

None of this is new. Work on sector health by Bayley et al has noted the dominance – for better or ill – of REF, and the challenges of maintaining a sense of shared ownership in the face of an inevitable focus on compliance, ordering and scoring. More recently, Phipps and Bayley have revised earlier work to reflect issues emerging as the impact agenda matures, drawing together current thinking, and providing the basis for a new model of impact literacy. This is an important moment, where establishing common ownership of the impact agenda can put the sector on an even footing ahead of REF2021 submission. Above all, there is a need to recognise the latent and diverse talent pool within the sector, working together to capture voices and perspectives that have remained unheard, and providing clarity with respect to the porous boundaries of what is a new and evolving professional identity.

Article Details

Chris Hewson & Julie Bayley

Date Published:

June 12th, 2019


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