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Chronic (sector) health and getting back our mojo

I’ve taken a step back in recent times from Twitter. Well social media in general to be honest. It felt like I needed to, but I couldn’t at the time articulate why. I have, for the large part of late 2018 and early 2019 been fairly unwell, so that’s probably the main issue. The stents have worked, but the nerve pain is new and that’s by definition more distracting than a well-practised pain with a 10 year heritage. Add to that a number of sick bugs from school (thanks kids) and basically I’m differently wonky with a hint of nausea. Anyway the thing you become aware of with any chronic health issue is how much of you it dilutes – everything is effortful, laboured and takes a disproportionate toll on whatever you try to do.

With social media, I was – I realise – getting utterly worn out by the continual stories about bad practice within the sector. Not tired of people telling the stories (they absolutely need telling), but tired of us seemingly getting no further past a sector-eats-itself situation. Stories abound about contract changes for REF / reluctance to employ early career researchers / systematic barriers to equality and diversity (etc etc) and the continued corrosion of research(er) wellbeing in the pursuit of rankings. In short, the sector is chronically unwell.

We seem to continue to find new and inventive ways to eat our young and marginalise those with less ranking ‘currency’. We’re increasingly legitimising universities as the sole dominion of research  (category A anyone?) and continuing to deify metrics despite epiphanies about responsible practice. We have re-paradigmed research through our various ratings system such that only dramatic step changes in knowledge (4* anyone?) are ordained at the altar of worthiness, and the peripheralisation of ‘smaller’ research, ‘lower level’ outputs and ‘limited effects’ is leaving so many in the sector feeling  overwhelmed, overlooked and undervalued.

This week I heard news of significant redundancies in my previous institution. Whilst I don’t know the details (nor the strategy on which the decision is based), I do know that as in so many other examples, good people are feeling betrayed. We all know there’s no Elysian Fields in which everyone gets funded and impact never dies, but for many, Dante’s inferno would be a more adequate metaphor. Where loyalty is penalised and territorialism rewarded. Where overwork is perversely incentivised and wellbeing reduced to tokenistic suggestions to ‘do more exercise’. Where stress and depression are considered unfortunate but unavoidable consequences, and where positive things happen only because good people keep other good people going. I maintain that we are enormously privileged in academia to have a voice and have the opportunity to make a difference,  but I’m hearing people ask more and more if it’s worth it.  Everyone is fighting so hard – often to stand still – and whilst it’s to their absolute credit that they keep going that isn’t sustainable strategically or psychologically.

My self imposed twitter detox has – in hindsight – reflected a sense of helplessness in addressing such pervasive problems. It’s perhaps no surprise that in parallel my professional attention has shifted significantly towards un/healthy practice in all its many guises and finding ways to rebalance things.  The sector voice is loud on the problems, and it’s time to step back into the ring and pick up the fight.

Ultimately this post is my weary, reflective and hopeful call for ‘better’. In whatever way that’s needed. Not shinier or bigger, but more decent and more meaningful across the piece. We all know the research landscape is complex, but we shouldn’t need to adopt a Hunger Games strategy  just to survive.

I’m professionally in a far healthier place, and hoping to re-find my twitter mojo soon, but for now my diluted energy is focused on trying to help salve a few things. The sector diagnosis might be chronic, but we’re not at terminal stage yet and that gives me enormous hope.

*Hugs it out*

J

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Sausages, unicorns and strip clubs. Or Impact: the challenge of connection

*Blog post relates to talks at PraxisAuril (October 2018) and Swansea University ((May 2019). This post summarises the talk (slides available here)*

First things first, what do we mean by research impact? If we look at various definitions underpinning funding (eg UKRI) and assessment (eg REF) they ultimately coalesce as the ‘provable change (benefit) of research in the ‘real world’. That is, effects of research which are felt beyond the academic walls. Accordingly it is measured by indicators of change outside of the university, and not by markers of academic interest or publication attention.

But let’s put in some clear caveats: there’s no one size fits all, and as a community we must as be sensitive to unscripted biases. For example, the shorthand to ‘benefits’ overlooks the perspectives by which all change is seen. What is good to one person may be bad for another. For example, reducing gambling is brilliant for society, less so for casinos. Similarly within arts and humanities, effects may be less directional and may aim towards disrupting archaism or challenging mindsets. Research which is diffused into the public arena (rather than having neatly targeted beneficiaries) will also always feel the extra weight of demonstrating change in an audience it can’t quite see. More fundamentally, the forced definitional division between academia and non-academia (‘real world’) must be used to understand where effects are felt, not to elevate or disconnect academia from its community home. So whilst definitions and shorthands are useful, they can not and should not be used as blueprints for impact irrespective of discipline or topic.

In the talk I reflect on 6 key lessons about impact:

1. We are all custodians of impact; we each have a piece of the puzzle

Impact is not the domain of one person or one part of the research landscape. Impact is a brokered, negotiated and connective art, achieved by and for people in a myriad of ways. And it’s a team game. We each have skills, perspectives, experiences, networks and ideas which can contribute to an impact cauldron of possibilities. By recognising which parts of the impact journey we can each support (as academics, research managers, KEC professionals, communicators, strategists, funders, publishers (etc) the big picture becomes far easier to see. For this we need to develop our impact literacy (download Emerald Publishing’s Impact Literacy Workbook here).

2. We often speak different languages

‘Impact’ is of course not a new word (although admittedly the tone has historically been one more akin to meteoric crises than research assessment). In recent years however impact has been catapulted into our collective consciousness as an important ‘thing’, but without necessarily a unified sense of what ‘it is’. Impact is often used both as a blanket term for the influence of an institution, and for the necessarily narrow contents of a REF case study. Without heading down deep philosophical paths about what it should be, the net result of blurred definitions is that we talk at odds thinking the other person knows what we mean. We end up accidentally pulling in different directions and watching impact potential drain from the space between us.

3. Impact case studies show the sausages, not the sausage factory

Sector wide communiques about impact (such as the REF 2014 impact database) share one key feature: they only show the wins. They don’t show the paths which didn’t play out, the contracts that weren’t signed, or the audiences that didn’t show. They neatly omit the blood sweat and tears of fighting for new partnerships only to have the company bought out at the last minute. Exalted cases are those which got through impact boot camp and found themselves presented shinily on the impact stage. If we only use these incredible examples to understand how impact works, we will never learn from what didn’t or appreciate that it’s ok for impact not to be perfect.

4. We need healthy, connected institutions

Just as we need to recognise individual contributions to impact, we need to ensure our institutions – which are invariably so complex – purse impact healthily.  We need to invest financially and culturally in impact, and focus on:

  • Commitment – The extent to which the organisation is committed to impact through strategy, systems, staff development and integrating impact into research and education processes.
  • Connectivity- The extent to which the organisational units work together, how they connect to an overall strategy, and how cohesive these connections are.  
  • Coproduction – The extent of, and quality of, engagement with non-academics for to generate impactful research and meaningful effects.
  • Competencies– The impact-related skills and expertise within the institution, development of those skills across individuals and teams, and value placed on impact-related specialisms. 
  • Clarity-How clearly staff within the institution understand impact, how impact extends beyond traditional expectations of academic research, and their role in delivering impact
  • For more on institutional health and to assess your own institution download Emerald’s Impact Institutional Health Workbook here).

5. We have a tendency to chase impact unicorns.

I’ve spoken about this before, but it’s absolutely worth saying again. The weight of expectation for impact risks mythicising high level impact to the point of meaninglessness. I’ve seen academics tearful after being rebuffed for only achieving national policy change. I’ve myself been advised to bypass work with local vulnerable communities as REF would need larger scale effects. And I’ve seen institutions plan to spend hundreds of thousands on equipment because ‘some of the four star cases had a scanner’. Whilst it’s of course challenging for institutions to balance meaning with pursuing investment for their sustainability,  we need to recognise the implications of pursuing big effects expense of meaningful smaller changes. This is always encapsulated for me by the wonderful Derek Stewart who remarks that – during his treatment for throat cancer – he also just wanted to be able to swallow. Swallow. Such a simple but meaningful change which could be so easily obscured if we only gaze at the fantastical horizon.

And finally,

6. REF, done irresponsibly, is like a strip club. Some people go in with money, some leave with money, and everyone feels a bit dirtier. I think I’ll leave that point there.

Ultimately if we want to optimise the benefits of research, we need to connect expertise and centralise meaning. So, if impact is the challenge of connection, imagine what we can do if we work together.

Acknowledgements to Dr David Phipps, Emerald Publishing, Derek Stewart, University of Lincoln, ARMA and INORMS RISE group

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An impact literate approach to health psychology – notes from the DHP 2018 impact session

Thanks to all those who came to the impact literacy session at the Division of Health Psychology Conference (Friday 7th September, 2018). References to everything discussed in the talk are below.

IMPACT LITERACY AND SKILLS

Impact literacy workbook and Impact Institutional Healthcheck available at https://www.emeraldpublishing.com/resources/

Bayley, J.E. and Phipps, D. (2017) Building the concept of research impact literacy. Published online in Evidence & Policy Available online http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tpp/ep/pre-prints/content-ppevidpold1600027r2

Bayley, J.E, Phipps, D., Batac, M. and Stevens, E. (2017) Development and synthesis of a Knowledge Broker Competency Framework. Evidence and Policy. Available online https://doi.org/10.1332/174426417X14945838375124 (OA version: https://pure.coventry.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/7270403/PRE_REVIEW_Knowledge_Broker_competencies_for_repository_OPEN.pdf)

REF

REF 2014 impact case study database – http://impact.ref.ac.uk/CaseStudies/

REF 2021 guidelines – http://www.ref.ac.uk/publications/2018/draftguidanceonsubmissions201801.html

MODELS AND FRAMEWORKS

Buxton, M., & Hanney, S. (1996). How can payback from health services research be assessed? Journal of Health Services Research, 1(1), 35-43

Donovan, C. and Hanney, S., 2011. The ‘payback framework’explained. Research Evaluation, 20(3), pp.181-183. Available at http://jonathanstray.com/papers/PaybackFramework.pdf

Phipps, D.J., Cummings, J. Pepler, D., Craig, W. and Cardinal, S. (2015) The Co-Produced Pathway to Impact describes Knowledge Mobilization Processes . J.Community Engagement and Scholarship. See http://jces.ua.edu/the-co-produced-pathway-to-impact-describes-knowledge-mobilization-processes/

Michie, S. Atkins, L, and West, R. (2014). The Behaviour Change Wheel: A Guide to Designing Interventions. London: Silverback Publishing. See www.behaviourchangewheel.com

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179-211. Further information available at http://people.umass.edu/aizen/tpb.diag.html

Bartholomew-Eldredge, L.K., Markham, C.M., Ruiter, R.A., Kok, G. and Parcel, G.S., 2016. Planning health promotion programs: an intervention mapping approach. John Wiley & Sons. Further information at https://interventionmapping.com/

Craig, P., Dieppe, P., Macintyre, S., Michie, S., Nazareth, I., & Petticrew, M. (2008). Developing and evaluating complex interventions: the new Medical Research Council guidance. British Medical Journal, 337, a1655 Available online https://mrc.ukri.org/documents/pdf/complex-interventions-guidance/ NB UPDATED GUIDANCE WILL BE OUT IN 2019

MY BLOGS

Avoiding imposter syndrome and impact

Chasing the impact unicorn

(Impact) life beyond REF

BROADER READING AND RESOURCES

Responsible metrics: www.responsiblemetrics.co.uk

Open Access via Unpaywall add on : unpaywall.org

CASRAI (information standards) https://casrai.org/

Analysing REF case studies: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/policy-institute/publications/Analysis-of-REF-impact.pdf

London School of Economics blog http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/

Evidence and Policy journal  https://policypress.co.uk/journals/evidence-and-policy

Research Evaluation journal  https://academic.oup.com/rev/

 

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A very impact’y INORMS 2018

And so we’ve had INORMS. What a week. Frustratingly I spent whatever time I wasn’t impact’ing limping slowly between rooms or collapsed in a heap. Thanks to all who helped out in various ways.

After the ARMA conference I routinely write a blog summary of the Impact Special Interest Group (SIG) session (see those from 2016 and 2017). However this year’s event had a different flavour. Firstly it had the glory that is David Phipps front and centre (after his fantastic plenary). Secondly it had a wonderful international dimension which broadened impact discussions and allowed us to briefly invent ‘impact tinder’…..

So instead of a SIG review, this post picks up three key headlines from talks and discussions with impact colleagues across the week:

1. There’s life beyond the ‘EFs

It’s probably fair to say that the UK impact community operates in a fairly ‘assessment-led’ context much of the time (not of course ignoring impact within the funding space).  The Research Excellence Framework (REF), especially as we get nearer to the 2020 submission date is looming ever larger, and the flurry of impact officer jobs in recent weeks perhaps pays testimony to the weight this holds for institutions. This said, of course impact is not just REF, and many colleagues – speakers and delegates alike – spoke hearteningly about meaningful connections to practice irrespective of formal requirements. Discussions about funders, REF, TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) and the incoming KEF (Knowledge Exchange Framework) reflected balanced caution between welcoming the broadening of agendas against increasing administrative burden. Dialogue with our international counterparts who don’t have, or are yet to fully cement an assessment agenda, refreshed our minds towards research for social benefit full stop. The more we connect cross-nationally, the healthier our practices will be. The challenge is to ensure that the appetite to ‘make a difference’ – which sits so fundamentally within the impact community – is not overshadowed by powerfully selective agendas.

NB: For reference I am by no means anti-REF, and have said before I’m very thankful for the platform it’s opened up to recognise the importance of applied and translational work. My concerns are always about REF being used to disincentivise valuable ‘but not competitive’ practice (eg. bypassing local connections for more lucrative national partners),  amplifying the publish-or-perish mantra with irresponsible metrics (eg. arbitrary impact factor rules) and contractual consequences for poor performance. It is the collateral damage to research, impact, careers and wellbeing that I, like many of us, find so heartbreaking in practice.

2. Healthy contexts and connections are key.

As we all know, impact is not an effortless result of successful dissemination. Yet across the sector we still face the challenge of disrupting simple conceptualisations of impact and overturning default reliance on longstanding measures such as publication metrics. For this, individuals and institutions need to work in sync, not in conflict to embed healthy practices (institutional health slides available here). It is not enough for individuals to build their own impact literacy, as unless this is supported by healthy institutions,skills development and sector-wide messaging, good practice and good intentions will just corrode over time.

A related and continued concern is that REF within institutions is reduced to a discourse of compliance. Within the impact community we’ve had multiple anecdotes about impact officers being told to just ‘make people do impact’, ignoring the sheer scale of tailored translational effort this requires. It overlooks the skills and expertise needed to drive a REF submission, and risks treating REF managers as unskilled ‘REF monkeys’.  Quite on the contrary, managing any element of a REF submission requires extensive knowledge, partnership working, resilience and incredible organisational skills.  A compliance-led culture not only does a considerable disservice to those in these roles, it reduces buy-in by academics to the process and fundamentally undermines REF itself.  Joyfully there are many examples of healthy, connected and committed practice within institutions, where staff are valued and skills recognised.  As we scale up impact agendas internationally, it’s crucial that these healthier models form the basis of institutional practice.

3. We still have a lot of lone wolves.

Impact is a team sport. It can only happen when people work together to connect research to practice. This involves researchers, impact managers, communications specialists, information managers, stakeholders, beneficiaries and many others.  Insights into co-production, creative connections between universities and communities, and broader discourse around public trust in science remind us of both the challenges and opportunities for brokering work beyond the academic wall. However whilst I use the term ‘impact community’, it’s also very apparent that many of colleagues still work in isolation. These lone wolves often shoulder the weight of impact delivery across an department or even institution, and can feel disconnected from peers. Cross-institutional connections, improved alignment of teams (not just additional committees) within the institution and a broader programme of training and development must be central moving forward.

Finally it remains a huge privilege for me to not only be a part of, but able to champion the impact community. It’s incredibly easy to extol the virtues of not only those in the UK,  but also our global peers when the commitment to driving benefits is so clear to see. Of course this short blog post can’t reflect the depth of discussions about balancing accountability for public monies with academic freedom, nor can it capture the wealth of discussions held during INORMS itself.  But it does bear witness to the investment of thinking, time and skills by so many in the sector to drive research meaningfully into practice. And I don’t know about you but that fills me with optimism for the future.

INORMS 2020 is in Hiroshima; imagine how far our collective approach will have got us by then. *Smile*.

Slides from the SIG are available here and the Impact Literacy and Institutional Impact Health Workbooks are available here.

Particular thanks to Anthony Atkin for his gazelle-like microphone management; Laura, Tony, Vicky, Harriet and John from Emerald for continued support and not punching me when I get so impact-exciteable; David Phipps, Jo Edwards, Dace Rozenberga, Esther de Smet and Lorna Wilson for being legends; the Lincoln crowd for being wonderfully  welcoming; and a large army of others for making the annual conference yet again a fantastic event. Cheers!

Chasing the ‘impact unicorn’ – myths and methods in demonstrating research benefit’.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) blog

Whilst academics and clinicians alike are well aware of the need to ‘make research useful’, formal expectations around impact have pushed us to assume only large scale effects are ‘worthy’.

With continued pressure to secure funding and ‘do more with less’, assessment driven thinking and impact measures such as the Research Excellence Framework 2014/2021 risk overshadowing the most basic of principles – that research – of any type, scale, or subject can do good in the world.

NIHR has always been anchored in improving patient care and wellbeing, and so investigators have a genuine opportunity to connect research with patient benefit. The challenge is how can this be done? How do we get back to basics in this pressured environment? In my experience as an academic, impact lead and formerly Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) impact champion, there are numerous unhelpful myths which derail impact. So let’s rebuild.

First the myths……

Myth 1: Impact is something big which happens at (or beyond) the end of a research project.

No. Impact is a change, irrespective of its size, nature or timing. Impact is the provable benefit of research in the real world. Of course we want the biggest and best effects we can get, but if we only gaze at a longer term fantasy we’re blinkered to the smaller, stepwise changes that get us there. We need to reset our thinking to recognise the value of those necessary milestones such as improved clinician knowledge and skills) which pave the way to something bigger including improved accuracy of diagnosis and treatment). Unless we focus on realistic steps, we will forever chase an elusive impact unicorn.

Myth 2: Only applied research has impact

Compared to applied research, fundamental research undoubtedly requires several more steps in the translational chain before it reaches impact. However, even though it can take many years to mature, such research often starts an impact marathon with multiple baton passes: new knowledge may be cited by those in another discipline, which forms the basis for a new method, which is integrated into a new technique, which is trialled in practice and so on. The challenge (and opportunity) is to map those forward steps.

Myth 3: You can’t plan impact

It’s true impact cannot be templated. Analysis of REF case studies showed over 3,700 distinct impact pathways, proving there’s no one size fits all. However, it isn’t true it can’t be planned. Whilst there is always the possibility of unexpected impact, planning impact can help us to identify:

  • What effects are possible, most appropriate, when they may happen and what measures or indicators might be used (eg.Patient Reported Outcome Measures (PROMS))
  • Stakeholders, including public and patient involvement
  • Identifying risks to getting research into practice – what regulatory hurdles need to be overcome? Who might object to the work? How likely will the research enter the care pathway?

Towards opportunities….

As the sector’s impact learning curve accelerates, two key opportunities for strengthening our impact are clear:

Opportunity 1: Building impact literacy

The opportunity for all those involved in health-related research is to become impact literate. That is, to understand what impact the research may have and for who, how research can be mobilised to action, and what skills are needed to make this happen. More fundamentally thinking about impact needs to start from ‘why’, understanding the meaning, purpose and ethics which should lead decisions about impact possibilities.

Since first publishing on impact literacy in 2017, impact has been cemented further into research consciousness, and it’s clear that deeper understanding is needed at both the individual and institutional levels. Earlier this year we published a new impact literacy paper, detailing both individual and organisational dimensions, alongside how levels of impact literacy can be developed. The new model is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Revised model of Impact literacy (2019*, updated from 2017)New IL diagram

Opportunity 2: Building competencies

Alongside developing understanding we must develop skills. Impact doesn’t just happen, people make it happen. This process of translating research into tangible effects takes effort, and professional development is crucial for strengthening impact across the research community.

………………..

So let’s return to basics. Impact is a change, of whatever magnitude, type or flavour. It is the shorthand for ‘doing good from research’ and depends on us thinking about the chains, connections and people between research and effects. We can empower ourselves with the skills and understanding to judge how impact best works for our research, and develop fair, measured and proportionate expectations.

Ask yourself: how can you make impact fantasy into reality?

 

*Bayley, J and Phipps, D (2019). Extending the concept of research impact literacy: levels of literacy, institutional role and ethical considerations [version 1; peer review: 1 approved] Emerald Open Research, 1:14 (https://doi.org/10.12688/emeraldopenres.13140.1)

Notes from the BPS Northern Ireland branch conference

Thanks to all those who came to the impact literacy session at the BPS Northern Ireland conference (April 2019). References to everything discussed in the talk are below (selected slides to follow!).

IMPACT LITERACY AND SKILLS

Impact literacy workbook and Impact Institutional Healthcheck available at https://www.emeraldpublishing.com/resources/

Bayley, J.E. and Phipps, D. (2017) Building the concept of research impact literacy. Published online in Evidence & Policy Available online http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tpp/ep/pre-prints/content-ppevidpold1600027r2

Bayley, J.E, Phipps, D., Batac, M. and Stevens, E. (2017) Development and synthesis of a Knowledge Broker Competency Framework. Evidence and Policy. Available online https://doi.org/10.1332/174426417X14945838375124 (OA version: https://pure.coventry.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/7270403/PRE_REVIEW_Knowledge_Broker_competencies_for_repository_OPEN.pdf)

REF

REF 2014 impact case study database – http://impact.ref.ac.uk/CaseStudies/

REF 2021 guidelines – http://www.ref.ac.uk/publications/2018/draftguidanceonsubmissions201801.html

MODELS AND FRAMEWORKS

Buxton, M., & Hanney, S. (1996). How can payback from health services research be assessed? Journal of Health Services Research, 1(1), 35-43

Donovan, C. and Hanney, S., 2011. The ‘payback framework’explained. Research Evaluation, 20(3), pp.181-183. Available at http://jonathanstray.com/papers/PaybackFramework.pdf

Phipps, D.J., Cummings, J. Pepler, D., Craig, W. and Cardinal, S. (2015) The Co-Produced Pathway to Impact describes Knowledge Mobilization Processes . J.Community Engagement and Scholarship. See http://jces.ua.edu/the-co-produced-pathway-to-impact-describes-knowledge-mobilization-processes/

Michie, S. Atkins, L, and West, R. (2014). The Behaviour Change Wheel: A Guide to Designing Interventions. London: Silverback Publishing. See www.behaviourchangewheel.com

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179-211. Further information available at http://people.umass.edu/aizen/tpb.diag.html

Bartholomew-Eldredge, L.K., Markham, C.M., Ruiter, R.A., Kok, G. and Parcel, G.S., 2016. Planning health promotion programs: an intervention mapping approach. John Wiley & Sons. Further information at https://interventionmapping.com/

Craig, P., Dieppe, P., Macintyre, S., Michie, S., Nazareth, I., & Petticrew, M. (2008). Developing and evaluating complex interventions: the new Medical Research Council guidance. British Medical Journal, 337, a1655 Available online https://mrc.ukri.org/documents/pdf/complex-interventions-guidance/ NB UPDATED GUIDANCE WILL BE OUT IN 2019

MY BLOGS

Avoiding imposter syndrome and impact

Chasing the impact unicorn

(Impact) life beyond REF

BROADER READING AND RESOURCES

Responsible metrics: www.responsiblemetrics.co.uk

Open Access via Unpaywall add on : unpaywall.org

CASRAI (information standards) https://casrai.org/

Analysing REF case studies: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/policy-institute/publications/Analysis-of-REF-impact.pdf

London School of Economics blog http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/

Evidence and Policy journal  https://policypress.co.uk/journals/evidence-and-policy

Research Evaluation journal  https://academic.oup.com/rev/

 

Post Thrombotic Syndrome, Nice and me.

I’m sat in Nice airport having just spoken at an event where I was invited to speak about my (patient) experience of Post Thrombotic Syndrome. Basically if you’ve ever heard me mention ‘my leg‘, that’s shorthand for ‘veins-battered-by-multiple-DVTs-leaving-me-in-constant-pain-and-struggling-to-walk. Otherwise known as PTS.

Last year I had venous stents fitted – a fairly new(ish) procedure where stents are inserted into the veins to open them up and help blood flow. Many of you kept me sane whilst I stayed in hospital for a week having a ‘re-do’ when one blocked and I had to have my blood basically turned to water and another stent added as a fix. Firstly thank you (you know who you are), and secondly several months on it’s clear the stents are doing their job. I have some annoying ongoing nerve pain sure, but that hopefully may resolve when I actually get my backside back to the gym again and lose some Christmas-overdoing-it-with-chocolate weight.

Anyway, today I was part of a session about making ‘meaningful change’ (I wasn’t even there doing impact, but what do you know, it’s everywhere). I had the joy of speaking in the closing plenary with my nurse (the wonderful Vanessa), and meeting some fabulous Boston Scientific people (shout-out to the fabulous Jodie). It was a wonderful opportunity to stand in front of those working internationally to develop/sell technology (eg my stents), and explain what difference it can make. Not in terms of sales figures, or patency rates, or broad tones about quality of life, but in actual real human terms. All I did was tell the story of my life since 2008 (abridged, of course, albeit they had to see some of my holiday photos), the limitations PTS brings and the opportunities venous stents create. It was an immensely easy story to tell, but the reaction (apparently there were tears!) told me how important it is never to lose sight of the patient. What technologies and procedures and interventions mean to them. We can throw around whatever metrics we want, but ultimately it comes down to being able to take your kids to the park and be able to say yes to opportunities in life rather than no.

I was offered the chance to do the talk via video link (rather than take 4 flights in two days) but there was a very simple reason I flew to Nice and spoke in person.

Because I could.

Thank you stents.

Avoiding impact imposter syndrome; lessons for first class impact

(I just remembered this when looking through my files…..originally published by Research Fortnight…….still rings true)

As I write this, I’m sitting on a train. I won’t lie, I’m in first class. Admittedly it’s because I stumbled on a great advanced deal, but whatever the reason, my mum is still taking this as a measure that I’ve ‘gone up in the world’.

Around me are a lot of people in suits, lifting their sparkly smartphones to their ears and – largely speaking – impressively balancing passive-aggression with the art of barking orders at junior staff.  The main thing that strikes me is that they seem to know precisely what they’re doing. They have that clear authority, directive (read *ballsy*) communication style and the presence that says ‘don’t interrupt me, I’m overseeing the sale of a small island’.  Sitting here trying not to betray my ‘only here because I got a good deal’ status, I am reminded that it’s very easy to fall into the trap of feeling like an imposter.

Sitting with that blank page to plan impact can feel like stepping into the first class carriage for the first time; not quite knowing what to do, trying to avoid accidental faux pas, and attempting to display enough gravitas to appear native. The introduction of impact to the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014) compounded this by rapidly shifting expectations for ‘real world effects’ from applied research to all disciplinary areas.  Whilst universities have been galvanised into more strategic approaches to impact, researchers still face the challenge of establishing just how impact fits with their own work. Watching how people enter the impact carriage is telling. I’ve had people in tears because they feel so completely underequipped to plan impact with something as important as a grant at stake. Conversely I’ve had others bluntly assert their personal exemption because impact is something ‘other people do’.  Generally most people fall somewhere in the middle, seeking to ‘do’ impact in a way that – quite justifiably – fits their discipline, research paradigm and overall ethos on the practical applications of their field of investigation.

In my experience, the REF-led impact-as-assessment rhetoric can taint planning at the funding stage.  It’s easy to overpromise, be unrealistic and guarantee to change the world on a single project because that’s what impact is presumed to be.  Fact: it’s not.  Of course there’s a desire to make big changes, but the smaller, direct benefits of a project (eg. ‘improved NHS staff knowledge’) are crucial milestones along an impact pathway towards bigger, longer term goals (e.g. ‘improved patient wellbeing).

One of the biggest and most pervasive errors at the planning stage is that of poorly thought out relationships between the project, activities, outputs and stakeholders. It’s so easy to accidentally ignore or mask the ways by which impact occurs, undermining the realism, achievability and meaningfulness of any plan. So if you’re facing an impact blank page, I’d suggest – alongside talking with impact specialists in your institution and using online resources (e.g. http://www.esrc.ac.uk/research/impact-toolkit/ – you take a step back and think about the following:

How does your research connect to a (the) bigger problem? All too often we assume – because we ourselves are so invested in the topic area – that the need for the research is obvious.  But it’s vital to fully outline the related non-academic problem and articulate how the project contributes towards a change.  Be clear on the direct results (which you can create) and how these may enable longer term benefits (which you can’t guarantee but you can make a realistic prospect).

How are you connected with the real world For research to escape academic captivity, you need to escape too. Build links (networks) with those who can shape, advise or use your research from early in the process. There’s no surer-fire way of annoying the pants off a potential beneficiary than rocking up at the end of the project to tell them what they need. And no, in this context, academics do not count as real world people. However lovely they are.

How do your activities connect with your impact goals? (tagline ‘lose your inner diva’) . One of the easiest traps to fall into is to name drop, jargon-drop or be so devoid of sufficient detail that you expect the panel to accept your impact will happen simply because you’re awesome. Phrases such as ‘the team are made of well respected experts’ may offer credibility to the project, but they do not deliver the realism and achievability needed for impact plans. Similarly broad statements such as ‘we will run workshops with users’ convey little more than ‘we know real people should be spoken to and we know where there’s a room available’.  All it means is that you have a context which is conducive to impact. It says precisely nothing about what you’ll actually do or, crucially, why.  The reviewer needs to be assured that you have chosen activities for a reason, so express your reasoning – ‘The team are made of well respected experts, which allows us to draw on a series of established networks’, and ‘To engage our key user demographic and gather vital feedback on implementation plans, we will run workshops with users’. Makes all the difference.

Have you connected with people who’ll challenge you? Impact needs critical friends – colleagues and stakeholders – who will force you to think beyond the academic merit of the work.  Impact isn’t about grandiose narratives, it’s about understanding what people need and designing achievable routes to get there. Find people who’ll make you justify things.

Have you connected the change to the measure Planning the evidence of impact is far easier when you know what kind of changes you’re looking for.  Think through (i) what you want to/think will change, (ii) how you will know a change has happened, (iii) how you could measure or qualify it, and (iv) what evidence you could get to prove it.  Setting this up from the start will make your life a lot easier.

Have you connected your aims with those of the funders? Don’t forget the funders aims, especially when you’re rushing to meet a deadline.  They’re crucial to connecting your project with the bigger (and often impact-focused) aims of the funder/scheme. Go check!!

Remember – impact can’t be templated or prescribed.  Go back to the reason your project is important. Your efforts in the research stage can really help improve someone’s life, even if it’s several steps in the future. And don’t worry about that first class carriage. Everyone there had to step onto it for the first time once too.