Where the Pathway ends: taking impact off-road

The original version of this article was first published in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service” on 6th February 2020

So that’s it. On 26 January the government confirmed its intention to cut impact sections from grant applications. RIP Pathways to Impact, then. As we move swiftly through the five stages of collective grief (although according to my Twitter feed many have rapidly bypassed denial and anger and jumped ecstatically to acceptance) we are left wondering what a less tokenistic and administratively lighter impact-afterlife looks like.

Since UK Research and Innovation’s announcement, we have had a series of comprehensive and thoughtful responses from, for example, James Wilsdon, Kieran Fenby-Hulse, Research Impact Canada, the London School of Economics, and the Institute for Development Studies. These and others have summarised many of the key reflections and questioned if impact is still alive (spoiler: yes). Notwithstanding the nuanced commentary of each, they broadly concur on three main things:

  1. Impact pathways were reductionist and flawed, but did offer a leverage point to plan engagement and routes for research implementation.
  2. The problem wasn’t just in Pathways to Impact, but in pursuing impact within a complex and unbalanced ecosystem.
  3. Removal of Pathways to Impact both reflects, and provides opportunities for, a more impact-mature sector, but we’re far from being fully impact-literate yet.

The last decade has witnessed a significant growth in impact knowledge, capacity and expertise. Impact now routinely forms a key part of research office function, and impact specialism is a far more established area of professional practice. While arguably in the UK this has much to do with Research Excellence Framework-related investment (and, frankly, REF-related anxieties), impact expertise is now diffused across the research system in specialist roles and support infrastructure. Research managers are more routinely involved in impact throughout the research lifecycle, but the experience of supporting impact on the ground suggests we should approach the post-Pathway brave new world with caution.

Thinking ahead

Pathways and REF Impact Case Studies have always been, in a conceptual but practically untidy way, opposite ends of an impact spectrum. Research implementation is a complicated business, and Pathways was often one of the few points of contact to support  researchers’ thinking about implementation realities. If speculation is correct, the Pathways to Impact will be replaced with a more combined research-with-impact case for support, an increased importance of logic models and raised expectations for impact to be embedded more strongly in institutional strategy.

If this reinforces the need for researchers and research institutions to review why, how, if and when research can contribute to socially meaningful goals—including challenges and risks—then we’ve stepped forward. However, if this presumes project-level planning is unnecessary, or magnifies existing system biases around institutional ‘high achievers’ or impact being a natural consequence of excellent research, then we really haven’t learnt much at all.

While UKRI’s decision seems to herald recognition of impact achievements thus far, the suggestion that the sector is now sufficiently impact-literate to lose Pathways without ramification is concerning. There are of course many examples of impact excellence and impact-related skills are much more prevalent than at the inception of Pathways. However, sparkly stories of impact achievement belie the patchwork nature of knowledge, engagement and support.

The need for healthy connections

Impact is, and has always been, more than a pathway document or a case study. It is, at its heart, a way to honour the university’s role within the society. Universities have other ways of doing this, for example at the University of Lincoln there is an ongoing drive to support our region as a Civic University, and to act as a “Permeable” university to break down barriers with wider society across all university functions.

Impact, however, has too often been unhealthily segmented away from core business, and the separation of impact within a separate Pathways section was indicative of this. Systemically we invest more in impact because we’re assessed more on it. We produce great stories of impact because the small stories don’t win financial rosettes. We partition the component parts of people’s roles into measurable chunks to make assessment practicable. And the sector’s memory for impact is undermined by the short-termism of professional impact roles and their REF-tied end dates.

The announcement does not and should not signify a downturn in the impact agenda, but instead should act as a catalyst for more comprehensive and less siloed approaches.

Next steps

The question really is what’s next? Will presumptions of sector maturity divert us from the development still needed? Will there be investment which drives impact in all its shapes and sizes (not just the shiny unicorn type)? Can we build an ecosystem which actually helps drive and ensure skilled judgment of meaningful impact? And in the midst of all these questions we need to remember that there are many other funders besides Research Councils for whom impact plans remain an important part of the application process.

Whether you’re overjoyed about no longer having to ‘pathway’ research impact, or concerned about the incoming impact-replacement service, March 2020 symbolises change. We have many years of experience, and extensive expertise to draw on to ensure that the promise of societal impact from research is fulfilled. Whatever the Pathways to Impact afterlife looks like, let’s get it right.

 

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