You can’t take it with you: impact 2020

Here’s a pre-REF 2020ish scenario. Professor X and Professor Y get job offers elsewhere. Professor X has two four-star publications, Professor Y has prepared two four-star impact case-studies. The university wants to retain them both, but funds are tight and priorities need to be clear. The impact case-studies are worth eight times as much as the publications, but publications travel with their authors whereas impact case-studies (under 2014 rules, at least) are owned by the university. So Professor Y goes; in fact, s/he probably wouldn’t have had a job offer at that time in the first place.

Hence the response of one of my colleagues, reviewing an application I’d prepared for the AHRC follow-on (i.e. impact-related) scheme. ‘This is all lovely,’ he said, ‘but what’s in it for you?’ He’s not an impact Luddite, mind you; his response was that of someone who has been ploughing this furrow longer than I have, and occasionally wondering why.

I don’t want to argue for more money for the impact-active. The real problem, it seems to me, is the way outputs distort the job market, not the way impact fails to do so. But I suspect that a lot of us who are in the business of managing departments are still grappling with the question of how to plan for 2020ish. How do we best recognize quality impact? How do we support and enhance potential case-studies? And how do we document them?

Recognizing the impact stars

To return to the scenario of my opening paragraph: in actual fact now, not 2019, is the time to buy impact. In the humanities, we learned in REF2014, lead times between research and impact tend to be shorter than for the sciences, meaning that it’s perfectly plausible to employ someone in September 2015 and expect a four-star impact case-study from them four years later.

Are any universities doing this? Not many, after all the pre-REF spending, will have sufficient space in their business plans. There have been a couple of ads for chairs in digital humanities – which is interesting in terms of the growth of a field, and perhaps also suggests a perception that this is an impact-rich field – but I haven’t seen any bold moves more specifically in my own discipline. Some of the more interesting decisions may fall at the lower end of the scale. When looking at applicants for lectureships, how important might it be that a candidate has the capacity to add value to a planned case-study? Might this prompt us to think, in the humanities, a little more than we have traditionally done in terms of research teams?

And how do we recognize those already delivering impact? One question of principle, which has a bearing on workloads and recognition, is whether impact is simply one aspect of research, or something else again. Hence, when allocating workloads it’s not clear whether we expect someone to deliver impact as part of their allotted research time, or whether we need to create more space for the impact-active. We’re still fudging this in my department. For this year I was granted, to support my impact work, ten hours in our 1650-hour annual workload model. That’s a figure so ‘neither here nor there’ that it risks becoming counter-productive. ‘Do you really want me to give you an impact case-study on the back of a day and a half a year?’

But I don’t have easier answers. I’d like to be able to argue that impact is simply one aspect of research, and therefore requires no additional support at all. That would be fairer and more straightforward, but it would also be reckless.

Enhancing impact

The REF doesn’t reward two-star anything. Therefore, as much as some people argue that everyone should be involved in impact, the logic of the system suggests otherwise. If a department doesn’t have a pretty good idea of its 2020ish case-studies now, it’s in a worrying place.

This should clarify matters in a department. Those who are not involved in delivering an impact case-study can – surely should – concentrate singlemindedly on their outputs. Impact, for them, may come into play next time around. For those who are at the impact frontline, meanwhile, attention shifts to enhancement. We have about four years to turn two-star case-studies into four-star case-studies, and there is probably no more important task of REF-preparation than this one.

I’m not sure there are simple answers the question of precisely how we do this. Each case-study is different, and will therefore require different things. The 2020ish winners, I expect, will be the departments that have been flexible and creative in 2015-18, providing bespoke support for developing case-studies.

Documenting impact

How many academics genuinely understand what’s required in an impact case-study? The evidence from REF2014 suggests that many of us don’t. My fear, in this context, is that a lot of activity happening now that may be important in 2019ish is not being adequately documented (and, for that matter, vice versa).

One solution to this problem is fancy new recording mechanisms (which still depend, it has to be said, on academics using them); another is the professional advisors finding work at many places. I wonder whether a further option might be to employ our students to support us. Most departments already spend a lot of money on graduate teaching assistants; why not graduate impact assistants? A smart PGR student, appointed to support a potential case-study, could make a difference: documenting, evaluating, and also enhancing what we’re doing. It would be good work for the students, as well.


I don’t have any great knowledge of impact. Indeed, to re-purpose a famous sledge used against the Australian batsman Mark Waugh, I’m not even the best impact-expert in my family. I’m a conventional enough researcher who has rather stumbled into impact work in a couple of projects, and now I find myself paid to worry about it as head of department. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that we have some work to do.


PS. And what is ‘four-star impact’ in the humanities?  See my May 2016 blog-post, based on analysis of departments that achieved 100% four-star gradings for impact in REF 2014.


6 thoughts on “You can’t take it with you: impact 2020

  1. […] I’ve noted before the effect upon the impact agenda of the rule, in REF 2014, that if an academic switched universities mid-REF cycle, s/he would take his/her outputs, while the university would retain any impact case-study. That skews the value, to the individual, of impact-related work. Why would a university will spend big money to recruit a major impact-star, as opposed to an output-star, on the eve of  a REF? […]

  2. This blog-post keeps getting read – thanks for the references, tweets, etc. I’ve recently become involved as a contracted reviewer for an @Epigeum training course on ‘Enhancing Research Impact’, which should be really helpful. The course editors at this stage (October 2015) are seeking stories of academics’ work in the big wide world of impact. These will be attributed as appropriate, and could serve, as a result, as valuable publicity for individuals and institutions. Please see:

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