A lot of my time over the past months, when I haven’t been involved in head of department stuff, has been occupied by the question of impact. This is an interesting, and not entirely expected, by-product of my role as Principal Investigator on two AHRC-funded projects. The question one now faces, along with more predictable concerns about academic outputs, is: will this project produce an impact case-study?
Consequently, I’ve been prompted to think about reseach in new ways, and catapulted into meetings with all sorts of people I never expected to meet, speaking all sorts of alien, non-academic languages. There’s been lots of talking and a fair number of dead-ends; inevitably, also, there will be more grant applications to complete. In all, it’s a little bit like middle-management, only more fun.
This is new territory for many of us, since the era of supporting impact-development is really very young. Given that impact generally needs to be tracked back over a period of years in order to count, REF2014 may look, in retrospect, anomalous. It was the REF for which we had to make sense, as well as we could, of things we had been doing without realizing they actually mattered. (For 2014 definitions, by the way, see s.D3 at: http://www.ref.ac.uk/media/ref/content/pub/panelcriteriaandworkingmethods/01_12_2D.pdf.)
But future REFs will be different. And this situation prompts a number of questions: from which, here, I will choose four.
- Do we all need to be impactful?
We’re likely to need more impact case-studies in 2020. In 2014 we needed one for every six researchers whose work was submitted. I’d bet we won’t be looking at 1:3 next time, as some have predicted, but 1:5 is likely and 1:4 possible.
That means many, or even most, of us will be involved in impact. Many case-studies, after all, are configured as the product of research groups or joint-run projects, rather than the work of lone-impacters. But we also need to be sensible. This suits some people more than others, and we need to recognize the life-cycles of researchers and their projects. Asking an early-career researcher to be impactful before s/he has finished a monograph may be counter-productive for everyone. And we need to remember that impact activities without the underpinning publications may well be ‘public engagement’, but may not actually be ‘impact’. So carts and horses need to be properly aligned.
- How can we accelerate our impact?
A number of research councils, including the ESRC, are awarding big ‘impact-accelerator’ grants to selected universities. This money is then broken down internally, to support the consolidation – acceleration, even – of impact in particular areas. That will provide a competitive advantage to the universities involved: another instance, if you like, of research councils furthering the process of research concentration.
The AHRC has no comparable plans. It stands resolutely against the principle of research concentration, even as the figures suggest that it’s happening all the same. But its follow-on scheme, open to all existing grant-holders, provides tens of thousands of pounds for impact-focused work, and the success rates for this scheme are notably high (around 50%). Obviously, also, any project or fellowship application will now have an element of (fundable) impact activity. Hence the question I’ve been asking myself: any grant, and any grant application, provides an opportunity to produce an impact case-study somewhere down the line. It’s not always going to work, but we’d be irresponsible not to consider the possibilities.
And what might be done internally? ‘Research leave’ in our college of humanities has been relabelled ‘research and knowledge-exchange leave’. Well, I can’t see that catching on among the troops (‘I’m really enjoying my researc and knowledge-exchange leave’), but the principle is sound enough. If impact matters for the REF, it’s worth supporting in all the ways in which we support other research activity.
- How do we record our impact?
One of my questions to my director of research centres on Professor X, who is generating activity that could produce a wonderful case-study in 2020, but who is pissed off with his employer and rather expecting to be elsewhere five years from now. Given that impact, in HEFCE’s definition, doesn’t travel with the individual (and given also that Professor X may decide in due course that the grass is actually no greener elsewhere), we need to be keeping track of what s/he is up to. How do we do that?
I’m not sure we have a good answer to that question. I’m not Professor X (well, maybe a little bit – but that’s another blog), but I have no system whatsoever for documenting what’s happening on the wonderfully impactful ‘Poly-Olbion Project’ and its HLF-funded sister-project ‘The Children’s Poly-Olbion’. In fact, some of the best activity happens almost without me noticing – as, perhaps, is the nature of the most effective impact-generating projects.
So what do we do? Pay student interns, perhaps, to document what we’re doing? I still like that idea, although I tried it last year and it’s not as straightforward as it sounds. Give Professor X some impact-hours in the workload model? We’re trying this now and – well – it’s a nice gesture but won’t necessarily produce the desired behavioural change in Professor X. An online record-keeping system? Will Professor X choose to spend his evening hours with that?
- How should we reward impact?
If impact can’t be packed in the luggage when a researcher moves, what incentive does an employer have to reward impact-related work? In 2019 we’ll doubtless find Professor Y, with a REF-portable four-star monograph, getting the job offers and pay-rises, as has always been the case. But Professor X?
This seems a key systemic issue, and I’ll be interested to see whether HEFCE tackles it when it rethinks the position of the 2020 goalposts. But it’s also an internal one: a question for managers and promotion committees, in particular, and one still to be answered in a convincing way.
But things are changing, just as our ideas of research are changing.