Impact and the research-and-practice PhD (i): some definitions of impact

Last week, I gave a paper at the Bath Spa University Early Stage Researchers Conference. The theme of the conference was impact, and my paper attempted to explore what impact might look like for a PhD like mine, combining research and practice in the humanities. This post comprises a reworked version of the first part of the paper, exploring what we mean when we talk about impact, and why. The second part, which I’ll post next week, relates my own research to the analysis of REF Impact Statements carried out by King’s College London and Digital Science.

 

Impact’s growing importance

Impact is an increasingly important consideration for researchers. Since 2009, it’s been a factor in funding applications, after the 2006 Warry report, Increasing the Economic Impact of Research Councils, recommended that ‘Universities, research institutes and Funding Councils … [should] take account of economic impact in the terms under which funding is awarded’. Now all Research Council UK funding applicants must include as part of their bid documentation setting out ‘who could potentially benefit from your research and what you can do to help make this happen’, known as ‘Pathways to Impact’.

Since 2014, impact has also played a part in the Research Excellence Framework, the ‘system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions’. The REF exercise allocates funding for university departments based upon staff research activities, and so has become a factor in career progression for researchers. This is an innovative development – the REF’s the first example of research funding based on non-academic impact across a research system, (Morgan Jones and Grant, 2013, p. 28). It’s also a significant one, since ‘approximately £1.6 billion worth of public funding over the next five years will be determined by impact case studies’ (King’s College London and Digital Science, 2015, p. 14) submitted as part of the REF.

It is, however, worth noting that, despite this, impact has – at least formally – not quite reached the very lowest rung of the research ladder, the humble doctoral researcher. Though a PhD currently requires both original research and an original contribution to knowledge, it does not – yet – explicitly require the demonstration of impact. And yet any doctoral researcher hoping to progress within a culture dominated by REF and funding applications will need to bear impact in mind in their research.

Some definitions of impact

As such a researcher, I’d like to begin by considering what we mean by impact. From the many definitions of the term, I’ll focus on three relevant to my own situation: firstly, that of Research Councils UK (RCUK), responsible for overall research funding policy; secondly, that of the research council generously funding my own research, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (the AHRC); and finally, the definition supplied by the REF, whose next iteration will take place shortly after I complete my degree, and so will influence my chances of getting a job after graduation.

The RCUK definition is perhaps the most inclusive, defining impact under two headings, ‘Academic impact’ and ‘Economic and societal impact’. The latter includes ‘fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom’, ‘increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy’, and ‘enhancing quality of life, health and creative output’).

The AHRC definition, while sharing the focus on economic and societal impact, makes no mention of academic impact. It defines impact only in terms of ‘its ‘effect on’ an individual, a community, the development of policy, or the creation of a new product or service … on our economic, social and cultural lives’.

The definition used by the REF goes still further by specifically excluding academia from its otherwise extensive list of areas of impact, whilst also prioritising society and the economy: ‘impact is defined as an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’; the emphases are mine. Since academic impact is judged elsewhere in the REF assessment, its exclusion here avoids any risk of ‘double counting’, yet it also contributes to a wider perception that impact is something that happens outside academia, not within it.

Economics, science, and the ‘impact agenda’

This perception is supported by the fact that academia’s current focus on impact, often referred to as the ‘impact agenda’, derives from the need to demonstrate to those outside the academy –politicians and the public – that academic research has value beyond the academy, and should therefore be funded by those outside it. Both the AHRC and RCUK are explicit about this: the AHRC explains that “It is necessary to show public value from public funding. In the current climate of … constraints on public spending there is an increased focus on demonstrating the economic, social and cultural benefits of publicly-funded research to wider society’; RCUK similarly notes that ‘Actively demonstrating the impact of research is essential to ensure continued investment in the research base’.

In her analysis of the ‘impact agenda’, Sophie Payne-Gifford notes that many trace this phenomenon back to the 2006 Warry Report. Reading that document, two key facts stand out: how closely its advice has been followed, and how explicitly economic its version of impact is. On the former point, its second recommendation is particularly telling: that ‘The Research Councils should influence the behaviour of universities, research institutes and Funding Councils in ways that will increase the economic impact of Research Council funding … working with [them] to persuade them to take account of economic impact in the terms under which funding is awarded’ – this is clearly reflected in our current situation. For the latter, from its title – Increasing the Economic Impact of Research Councils – onwards, the word ‘impact’ is almost invariably preceded in the report by ‘economic’: of the twenty times ‘impact’ appears in the opening five pages, seventeen times it is directly preceded by ‘economic’; not even the phrase ‘impact agenda’ is immune, cast here as the ‘economic impact agenda’.

Since the report’s key recommendations have largely been adopted wholesale, aside from the uncoupling of the terms ‘economic’ and ‘impact’, this not only underlines that our current focus on impact is economically-driven, but also raises questions as to whether the impact desired by the research councils and REF is genuinely a wider-ranging version of the economic impact so central to Warry, or a merely a euphemism for it. It might also be noted in passing that this focus on impact originated with the sciences and has then been applied to the humanities with varying degrees of adjustment; the influential Warry Report was written to be read by ‘the Director General of Science and Innovation’ at the Department of Trade and Industry, while the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014, identified by Payne-Gifford as ‘an earlier precursor to the Impact Agenda’, lays claim – somewhat unpersuasively – to a wider purview in a footnote to page 36 that states that ‘In this context “science” should be read in its broadest sense to encompass all aspects of engineering, technology, design, social sciences and the arts and humanities’.

The second part of this post will be published on Monday.

 

 

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