Bacon and Waldegrave: Towards a Broader Definition of impact


Professor Denise Lievesley, Dean of the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy, King’s College London

‘Impact’ has a bad rep, particularly in the context of REF. Indeed, I suspect it has become one of the most used (and probably misused) words in the academic lexicon. The term was originally imported into the Research Excellence Framework after a review in 2011 and referred to ‘any social, economic or cultural… benefit beyond academia… underpinned by excellent research’. Over time, this definition has been tightened up and is now most often rendered as ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’.

The idea of consciously pursuing social and economic benefits worries many who argue that the purpose of research should not be to have social benefits or commercial potential but (in the words of one academic) “to multiply ideas, enrich minds, approach truth, stimulate debate, excite academic exchange and enhance lives in ways too wonderful to measure”. Academics should not, so the argument runs, answer the questions of others; rather, they should produce research for the sake of research; if there are positive outcomes, so be it. If not, well, that’s just fine as well.

Right at the heart of this debate are what I see as a set of misconceptions about what impact actually is. These misconceptions are critical because they have consistently skewed the debate about impact and cleaved a great divide between the two extremes of that debate – between ‘applied’ and ‘blue skies’,  ‘curiosity-driven’ and ‘end-user driven’, ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’.

The first of these crucial misconceptions is that impact is a relatively new concept. For some, it is synonymous with REF 2014; others trace it to the 1993 White Paper by William Waldegrave, ‘Realising Our Potential’ which spoke of harnessing ‘strength in science and engineering to the creation of wealth in the United Kingdom’. Waldegrave’s paper may refer to impact and was certainly a formalized statement about the government’s desire to link research to economic benefits and a wider knowledge economy, but it is far from the first statement about research having an effect beyond academia. For that, we can go back at least as far as Francis Bacon, who in 1620, wrote

There is another powerful and great cause of the little advancement of the sciences, which is this: it is impossible to advance properly in the course when the goal is not properly fixed. But the real and legitimate goal of the sciences is the endowment of human life with new inventions and riches.

Impact – benefitting humans and society – has long been a central part of the scientific – indeed, the broader academic – endeavour.

The second misconception is that the impact agenda stifles ‘blue skies’ research which, by virtue of having no identifiable outcome or product, allows for the creation of new ideas and technologies. The classic examples of what we might term research serendipity are the discovery of products such as penicillin, artificial sweetener, superglue and teflon (though it was not, as is often mistakenly thought, discovered as part of the Apollo Program, but in research on refrigerants). But the point is that serendipitous ideas and inventions can come, just as easily, from ‘applied’ research as they can from ‘blue skies’; the Apollo Program might not have been the reason Teflon was discovered, but it is the reason that a whole host of other inventions were: memory foam, freeze-drying and space blankets. Or to put it another way, there is no reason that government- or client-led research should not allow for the accidental discovery of new knowledge.

The third misconception is that impact is the be-all-and-end-all of research; the utopian goal; the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow towards which all academics must march. The corollary is that all research should be about impact. If this were the case, impact’s murky reputation might well be justified – not all research should be about providing answers to questions posed by government or industry, just as not every policy decision should be based on specially commissioned research. However, the crucial point is that this is not the case. Indeed, impact is still the tiny minority of research and, as things stand, universities need to submit impact statements for up to 1 in 10 of the academics in the REF.

The thing that underpins all these misconceptions is how we define impact. If we see it as yet another irksome, even contemptible, auditing hoop through which academics must jump in order to attract government funding, then it is, perhaps, not surprising that criticisms are leveled at it. But impact goes so far beyond that: it is about social, economic, political, technological and cultural benefits that world-class research produces; it is about accountability – about universities justifying the money they receive to the taxpayers who, ultimately, give it. In an era of austerity and budget cuts, academics have to prove that they are worth the investment and one way that they can do this is by contributing positively to the world outside the academy. That will involve leaving ivory towers behind.

Evidence-based policy and the precautionary principle

Post by The Rt Hon David Willetts MP

Professor Jonathan Grant and Dr Benedict Wilkinson make some very important points about evidence-based policy in the first post. In particular, I welcomed their point that whilst evidence has much to contribute to policy, it is – and should be – part of a wider mix. The decisions of political parties ought to be broadly predictable on the basis of their character and beliefs – they cannot just shift every time a new piece of evidence comes in.

Sometimes over-reliance on one specific piece of evidence can leave you vulnerable. I remember being influenced by Leon Feinstein’s very interesting paper for Economica in 2003 called Inequality in the Early Cognitive Development of British Children. He showed that bright poor kids fell behind rich dim kids by the age of 7. I served on Nick Clegg’s social mobility group and recommended this powerful evidence to him and he too was impressed and cited it. But Leon’s work was challenged by other academics because it was affected by reversion to the mean. The result was that the Guardian ran a piece that the Coalition’s social mobility strategy was undermined because the research on which it rested had been disproved. That is not, of course, a reason for giving up on evidence-based policy: but it is a reminder of how careful we have to be in using it.

Actually a lot of evidence is fed into our policy process in the UK – and the Coalition is good for evidence as there are colleagues sitting around the same Cabinet Committee who may not share the same tribal instincts but might respond to some good clear evidence. Moreover, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and the network of chief scientists in each Whitehall Department are powerful advocates of evidence-based policy. Sir Mark Walport is the Government’s empiricist-in-chief. The Fukushima crisis showed the enormous value of this system. Some countries – such as the French – advised their nationals to leave Tokyo because of the danger from nuclear radiation. Our then chief scientist – Sir John Beddington – advised that whilst it was a very serious accident there was not a danger which warranted such action. Nobody would have trusted a politician to make that assessment but our Chief Scientist was relied upon. Now the Japanese government is looking at whether they should create a similar post – and we have enormous goodwill in Japan as well.

The public response of EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger to Fukushima is, by contrast, a case study in what goes wrong when all empirical rigour is abandoned. He said: ‘There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well-chosen. Practically everything is out of control. I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come’. Several well-respected British scientists – including Jim Al-Khalili, Simon Singh and David Spiegelhalter – rightly complained about this intemperate statement in an open letter to me as science minister. After that incident Scotland’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Anne Glover, was appointed as the first Chief Scientific Adviser to the EU. Her term came to an end with the old Commission but it is very disappointing that apparently the Junker Commission has decided to abolish the post. This is very bad news. The Commission does not have a good reputation for acting on the best available evidence and some, if not much, of the time, NGO campaigns get in the way of the scientific evidence as they have, to take two pertinent examples, on GM crops and nanotechnology.

This is where the Precautionary Principle comes in to play. Rightly understood, it refers to the extremely careful assessment of risk; all too often, however, it is misinterpreted to mean that nothing can be done until we know all the effects of some new technology. Innovations may carry risks but they are frequently lower than those presented by existing technology. The EU’s Physical Agents Directive 2004, for example, sought to manage the risk of exposure to electromagnetic fields. But it set the limits for occupational exposure so low that some procedures using MRI scanning in hospitals would have become illegal across Europe and instead there would have been more use of X Rays which are actually more dangerous. It took years of lobbying to get something more sensible.

There are arguments for changing the exact way the post of EU Chief Scientific Adviser is constructed. Anne Glover’s post was a personal appointment advising the President of the Commission and she did suffer from not having a solid base in the Commission’s directorates. It is not too late for Mr Junker to create a new post – or even better, a network – across the Commission. That is the right way forward.

The Rt Hon David Willetts MP was Minster for Universities and Science from 2010 to 2014 and is now a Visiting Professor at King’s College London.

Shifting policy attention to the social care workforce

Dr Shereen Hussein is Principal Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit in the Policy Institute at King’s. 

The year 2014 has seen growing attention given to the social care workforce, with a number of high profile reviews being published, including the Kingsmill Review ‘Taking Care’, the Unison report into home care ‘Time to care’, the Demos review of residential care and, launched today, the Burstow Commission review on the future of the home care workforce, ‘Key to care’.

The question of how to maintain a high quality social care workforce has received academic scrutiny for many years, with research highlighting the lack of career progression, low pay and status, and the inability of the sector to attract young and diverse groups of workers as some of the key issues. There are many reasons why we are in this state of ‘crisis’ but at the core is the assumption that care work is something that can be performed by ‘anyone’—it does not require a vast amount of skills and we can always find a willing worker to do it. While these assumptions go unspoken, they underline how the sector operates and derive from the perception of care work as ‘women’s’ work that comes ‘naturally’; if the family can do it why do we need a skilled professional to do it?

Key to Care (Burstow Commission report)Well, as you might have guessed, the majority of these assumptions are indeed wrong. Care workers are increasingly required to perform many tasks that go far beyond personal care; they are caring for adults and older people with complex needs, severe dementia and communication challenges. They are expected to provide care that is tailored to the needs of the people they care for and to be sensitive to their specific circumstances. The Care Act 2014 emphasises the key principle of users’ wellbeing as central to social care, thus care workers are expected to perform their tasks with a clear understanding of how to promote dignity, protect the people they support from abuse and neglect, and respect their wishes and autonomy. Additionally, the commitment to personalisation and minimising the use of residential (care home) services means that care workers increasingly provide care in people’s own homes and their communities, usually on their own without supervision or social support. Thus, in their day-to-day activities, care workers employ a high level of knowledge and skills ranging from those related to the understanding of specific illnesses and conditions to communication and softer skills.

It is difficult then to fathom the current lack of appreciation of this workforce. From evidence of many being illegally paid under the National Minimum Wage (Hussein 2011HMRC 2013) to increasingly fragmented working conditions, with zero hour contracts becoming commonplace. It is no surprise then that care worker vacancy and turnover rates are considerably higher than the UK labour force average (Hussein et al., in press).

In fact, one might wonder why over a million people continue to be care workers given these conditions. To understand this we need to look not only at who works in this sector, but more importantly what motivates people to do this work in the first place. Our extensive research in this area indicates the most common reason for people to work in care is their wish to help and assist others. This is expressed by several groups of workers, whether British women in their mid-forties, migrant workers in their thirties, or the few younger people aged under 25 years old. The majority relate their work to their own personal experience and the informal care they provide, or have provided, to members of their families. With this attitude many care workers go above and beyond their duties, usually continuing to finish their care tasks even when the 15-minutes allocated per visit have elapsed. But this comes at a cost: stress, lack of support and job insecurity are common themes discussed by care workers. And of course, there are some who join the sector simply because they have not gained enough qualifications to secure other jobs or because they need an employment foothold in their new migratory destination.

However, the key question remains: how can we recruit and retain a high quality workforce that is capable of meeting the exponential demand associated with an ageing population and the increasing diversity and complexity of care provision? It is simply not possible to rely on people’s goodwill and hope for the best. Especially when the current care provision structure is likely to reduce the key non-monetary reward for this workforce: getting the emotional reward from service users themselves. By operating a care commissioning system that is run by the minute and reducing the opportunity to have co-workers and supervisory support, care workers are in many cases left stressed taking their worries back home.

The sector needs to actively attract and retain high quality workers; this may be achieved first by providing basic job security and support. All the reviews into this sector call for enforcement of the basic pay level, the National Minimum Wage, and a reduction of potential exploitation through zero hour contracts and an end to inappropriate15-minute care slots. But this is only the start, care work needs to be regarded as a ‘career’ not ‘casual’ work. This can only be achieved by establishing a clear training and career path that can feed into the wider health and care sectors. In my view, care work needs to be better regulated and care workers registered, and more need to join unions and so have a collective voice and bargaining power. A more complex problem is the public perception of the value of care work. As a society we need to appreciate and value this work more by visualising ourselves in old age and imagining how we would like to be cared for and by whom.

Dr Shereen Hussein is Principal Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit in the Policy Institute at King’s. She speaks on this topic in this Policy Institute video.

The Social Care Workforce is currently undertaking a major project examining the workforce issues referred to in this post, the Longitudinal Care Work Study.


Hussein, S., Ismail, M. & Manthorpe, J. (in press) ‘Changes in turnover and vacancy rates of care workers in England from 2008 to 2010: Panel analysis of national workforce data’ Health & Social Care in the Community.