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

I was delighted to ask to speak about impact at the PraxisAuril conference (Liverpool, October 4-5th 2018). The Knowledge Exchange Community (KEC) and Research Management (RM) community overlap so strongly in the impact space that opportunities to draw the two closer are always welcomed. 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