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.