By Anne-Sofie Laegran
Having been part of the emerging “impact profession” and followed the agenda closely since 2008, I found Smith et al.’s book an excellent account of the controversies, consequences and challenges that has risen from the impact agenda. I agree with their alternative and broad approach to supporting and incentivising research impact, and hope it gains support institutionally.
Accepting that we live with a result based framework of funding research, I see the assessment side as the main challenge though. I am not sure the alternative approach provides solutions to how we can better assess impact meaningfully with the transparency and rigour required.
For example, I am not sure how you would assess and reward activity if we don’t have evidence of its effectiveness, for example with regards to public engagement. NCCPE did, however, show that nearly half of case studies in REF2014 mentioned public engagement as a route to the claimed impacts, so I think this may be a slightly exaggerated problem. Learning from failure is really important, and from my experience this needs to take place in trusted spaces, so would be hard to demonstrate and reward in REF.
Some panels went too far in expecting a causal link between research outputs and discrete impacts in REF 2014. The current guidance is more specific on the many non-linear ways research can contribute to impact, but internal review panels may find these more risky to pursue. Likewise synthesis of research would met the quality threshold in most panels, but institutions may put additional barriers. I think though that weakening the link between research and impact would be unhelpful in an assessment of research. The impact of universities is of course much wider, but this is already covered through outcome agreements in Scotland, and through the Teaching and Knowledge Exchange Frameworks in England. I think a positive outcome of the research impact agenda is how many academic colleagues have focused their engagement around their research rather than seeing this as separate activities.
Whilst challenges remain with assessment, I think the eight principles, including those mentioned above, provide an excellent basis from which to build a positive impact culture. I share the authors’ worries that academic rigour and autonomy, as well as discovery based research, are challenged in the current environment. This is short sighted, as I’m convinced a research environment that combines the multitude of approaches both to research and to impact is the one that will make the most difference to the world; and also succeed in REF. The academic community, and the “impact profession” I represent, have a common course in advocating for this. Both to national stakeholders, and locally if we see management taking a narrow path to impact focussing solely on developing REF case studies.
Anne-Sofie Laegran is the Head of Knowledge Exchange and Impact at the University of Edinburgh Research Office, promoting collaboration and engagement between academia and stakeholders across different sectors.