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!

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