Is impact here to stay?

Added by Leilasattary on 12 November 2009 16:59

Impact’ has been the word of the year in higher education research policy - Impact Plans, Impact Assessment, Impact Pilots. As funding cuts loom, the Treasury is looking to justify the investment of tax-payers’ money in research.

This increased pressure on the Research Councils has manifested in Impact Plans from RCUK and the planned assessment of impact in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which will replace the RAE. These new requirements at the application and reporting stages of funding herald a shift in research policy and it will take many years to embed the culture in academia and create the systems to cope with new reporting.

However, as reported in the Times Higher Education supplement, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills David Willetts recently suggested that the Research Councils disregard Impact Plans when awarding grants and that he thought it was particularly offensive to force academics to tick boxes for no reason. “We don’t want to see these things imported into the Research Excellence Framework”, he said. At the moment, impact plans are not used in peer review panels to rank proposals. With the Tories voicing doubts and a general election on the horizon, some wonder whether the ‘Impact Agenda’ will be a passing phase.

The new emphasis on impact has met with some resistance from universities. It didn?t help that the Treasury insisted on using the term ‘Economic Impact’ to describe how universities contribute to society. Many academics, particularly those who work in humanities disciplines, see their impact is anything but economic. Often the impact of academic research is of great social value without the price tag. One academic gave me an example recently - he told me that his academic work has directly led to the stalling of a civil war. How does one put a monetary value on a non-civil war? RCUK have gone some way by defining economic impact as impact of economic, social or cultural value but the word impact remains a dirty word for some and still associated with money. The hearts and minds of academia are yet to be won.

Some academics have interpreted the impact agenda as an attack on blue skies research. Although the Research Councils make it clear that this is not their aim, a petition has been signed by over 8,000 academics asking HEFCE to completely rethink the 25% impact assessment in the REF claiming it is founded on a complete misunderstanding of how academic research is conducted.

Meanwhile, universities are trying to put systems in place to record research impacts to help academics with Impact Plans and new reporting procedures. The ESRC have recently changed their final reporting requirements to include measures of economic, social and policy impacts and the MRC are launching their e-Val system to gather outputs and outcomes of medical research. Arguably the biggest challenge will be assessing research impact as part of the REF. The details of how impact will be assessed needs refining, but HEFCE have asked universities to pilot the impact assessment in the REF consultation and are commissioning some studies on impact measurement to try and create a more robust framework for the REF.

Although there have been numerous complaints and petitions about the impact agenda and I am sure that HEFCE are receiving some strongly worded replies to their REF consultation, I think that this is an issue that is not going to disappear, even with a change of government. Whether you believe in the Research Councils’ approach, all agree that research should have some sort of impact (whether academic, economic, social or cultural) and perhaps, after many years of investment, we should start showing the UK what they have got for their money. Of course much academic research takes decades and sometimes centuries to reach the pinnacle of its tangible impact but there is certainly more the higher education sector could be doing to convey this message. It remains to be seen whether the measures put in place by this government are the best way to solve this problem and whether they will last in the years to come. 

Leila Sattary: Leila works on research and knowledge exchange policy at the Research Services Office in the University of Oxford.


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