Between excellence and relevance: academic research, policy and the making of research impact

In recent years, research impact has emerged to become a part of the everyday life of UK academics. The underlying logic of the impact agenda, as reflected in policy documents, is that excellent research would lead to societal benefits (see for example RCUK). But how do these policy expectations fit with the realities of knowledge exchange and impact work? This question is at the heart of my upcoming SKAPE presentation, in which I will offer some early findings emerging from my PhD project, which studies academics involved in knowledge exchange organisations.

The emergence of research impact

Many academics came across research impact when it was introduced as an element of RCUK research funding under the heading of “Pathways to impact”, or as the impact case study component of the Research Excellence Framework. However, these changes can be understood as part of a longer-term ‘impact’ focused policy project that can be traced back to at least the 1993 White Paper “Realising Our Potential. A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology”. This document introduced an ambitious project of a cultural change:

“The aim is to achieve a key cultural change: better communication, interaction and mutual understanding between the scientific community, industry and Government Departments.” (Cabinet Office, 1993, p. 5).

This idea was further developed in multiple documents that followed, including “Realising our potential”, the Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration and the 2004-2014 Science and Innovation Investment Framework). A key development was the 2006 Warry Report, which pointed to the gap between ‘excellent science’ and ‘insufficient’ implementation of science in policy and economy. The Warry Report proposed that, in order to fill this gap, ‘impact’ should be introduced as a criterion of research funding allocation. This new funding paradigm has opened up a route to the inclusion of impact as both a desired outcome of scientific activity and a measurement criterion for research funding in both strands of the UK’s government funded research system – the Funding Councils and the Research Councils. RCUK’s “Pathways to impact” (introduced in 2009) were designed to encourage researchers to think about the potential of their proposed research for achieving impact (and allowed reviewers to assess these proposals). REF impact case studies, introduced in 2014, were designed to assess impacts that had already been achieved. The definition of research impact is consistent across these two systems and highlights excellent research as a basis of research impact: the RCUK’s definition of it being: “The demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy”; and the REF definition being “All kinds of social, economic and cultural benefits and impacts beyond academia, arising from excellent research, that have occurred during the period”.

The emergence of the research impact agenda has led to multiple investments by UK research councils in related mechanisms, including in knowledge exchange organisations, with the aim of increasing the impact of research on behalf of individual researchers or research groups. In my presentation, I will explore how people employed in these kinds of positions experience and understand research impact and how these understandings translate into strategies oriented towards achieving research impact. To illustrate this, I will explore two ways in which their experiences deviate from the assumptions behind the impact agenda: 1) in terms of misalignment of impact and academic excellence, and 2) in terms of impact being a concrete, measurable phenomenon.

 The misalignment of excellence and relevance

Contrary to documents discussed in the preceding section that present research impact and excellent research as causally connected, many of the interviewees saw the achievement of research excellence and of impact as two separate processes. Data show that academics working in impact-oriented organisations perceived themselves as operating within contradictory and competing logics: that of official declarations of the importance of impact, and that of practical accountability and performance measurement in terms of high-impact journals. In their work the contextualisation and localisation of the impact activities was contradicted by the universality and generalisability of what is conceived of as “excellent research”.

Interestingly, data show that academics operating within impact roles do not find the cultural differences between academia and policy as challenging as meeting the contradictory expectations of the universities and funders. So how do academics deal with this double-accountability? One way identified in the data is the creation of social spaces for people with similar views, goals and value systems. The perception of their organisation as a space separate from the university creates an opportunity for the academics to alleviate the tension stemming from contradictory expectations of being simultaneously socially involved and academically distant. Within these spaces, the career risks and responsibility for meeting performance indicators are dispersed among multiple members. As a result, the interviewees view their organisations as standing at the forefront of cultural change in academia.

 The making of impact

“Research impact” has emerged as a tangible policy concept, reflecting an activity that can be planned, executed (as in the “Pathways to impact”), measured and reported (for example through REF impact case studies). This idea could be contrasted with the experiences of academics in impact roles who perceive research impact to be the result of complex social processes and structures that cannot always be measured. In my presentation I will focus on two of the processes and structures: 1) sense-making process of the translational role of the organisation and understanding of what impact is, as well as how this understanding came to be; and 2) the wider structural and organisational context in which the organisation is operating, including the university setting, policy structures that the organisation is aiming to influence, and funding structures. These processes and institutional arrangements affect the different strategies that organisations and people in those organisations adopt to influence policy and consequently the types of impact sought (and achieved) by these organisations. Particularly interesting here, in terms of the architecture of the impact agenda, is the relationship between the way the organisation is set up and the potential breadth of the resulting impact. These differences are illuminated by a comparison between the studied organisations. The first one, created in close collaboration with partners, was operating in a reactive mode, responding to policy needs. This approach increased the chances of more direct instrumental impacts. A contrary approach could be identified in the second organisation. Here the participants perceived their work as initiated by research, rather than policy questions. Thus their approach would not yield measurable policy outcomes but rather a broader illumination and enrichment of the policy debate.

In the concluding segment of my presentation, I will reflect on the perception of these organisations as facilitators of a cultural change in academia. By creating spaces where narratives and ideas about research impact are created, knowledge exchange organisations offer an alternative to impact agenda policy accounts of academic engagement.