This isn’t about impact….but it could be a big change for me

This isn’t about impact….but it could be a big change for me

This post isn’t about impact. Feel free to step away……

I’ve spoken about it before, but for those who don’t know, after a major DVT in 2008 – and subsequent ones in 2010 and 2016, I have lived with post thrombotic syndrome (PTS) for the last decade. And with its awesome mix of constant aching, leg swelling, heaviness (all exacerbated by walking, standing and sitting and basically normal life) I’ve spent every day of the last 10 years in pain. Some days mild enough to only cause problems when trying to sleep, others so intense it’s left me crying on the floor from the second I wake up. It’s required a constant set of mental calculations to work out the shortest number of steps between any A and B and weeping at the bottom of stairs when lifts are broken. I have a continued and deep guilt having to say no again and again to my kids when they want to go to the park. I’ve joked about being a pirate because it’s easier to do that, but I forget my boys have never known me well. Basically clots aren’t fun and someone clever should ban them.

As I write this I’m waiting in a hospital room (well ‘on site accommodation’ to be pedantic) ahead of surgery tomorrow. If you’re a fan of medical programmes you’ll be interested to know I’m having stents fitted in my veins to try and fix things. If you’re not a fan then you’ll hate the thought of all this anyway and will already have stepped away from the screen.

Having had to ‘use my leg’ today I’m currently collapsed in my room waiting for the ache to go. But for the first time I’m struck by a real sense this this might change. That this could actually be my last day so ‘damaged’. Don’t get me wrong I’m not getting ahead of myself, it might not work. But it could. For the first time since 2010 (ill-fated bypass surgery) I have the prospect of ‘better’ which is a genuinely odd feeling. I might be going home later in the week with a working leg, and that is an incredible possibility.

Updates to come…..

UPDATE at 21.15

Whoop I’m alive, so that’s fairly nice. Don’t know details of surgery success yet as no chance to have a ‘debrief’ but from what I understand all went well. I have no idea what it means for my mobility, and at the mo am aching enough to care more about finding a comfortable position.

But after a day of ‘being a patient’, two things are clear:

1) Patients wait. A LOT. And not just for procedures – for information, for clarity, for contact. It’s immensely easy for patients to feel lost in the system simply through lack of comms.

2) It is impossible to be either dignified or glamorous in surgical stockings and tethered to a compression machine.

More anon….

UPDATE FRIDAY 29th JUNE

I’m home. Whoop! Blood flow sufficient to be discharged, so after a mix of trains and taxis last night I’m back on my sofa. Very achey and feeling very post-op’y but hopeful it’s all worked. Time will tell!! Thanks all for lovely messages :-))

Featured

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!

Making a difference in impact….is there life beyond REF?

Impact beyond the REF. Consider that for a moment. What does that mean? What would that look like? And with REF so often synonymised with impact in the UK, how can we extract ourselves from its dominant voice?

I was invited to deliver the opening plenary – alongside Melanie Knetsch (ESRC’s Strategic Lead for Interdisciplinarity, Innovation and Impact) and Professor Peter Kemp (Vice-Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Public Policy, Blavatnik School of Government, and University of Oxford Social Sciences Division Strategic Impact Lead) – to consider impact beyond the REF. It’s an odd concept because – let’s face it – REF isn’t going anywhere, so establishing ‘beyond’ is immediately difficult in tone.

Ultimately there are numerous ways to look at this.  As my plenary colleagues considered the bigger strategic picture and the policy context, I chose to think about impact on-the-ground and in the lives of researchers, research managers and ‘users’ (more on that later). Here are my headlines:

First things first, impact existed before the REF.  I hope you were sitting down

I don’t want to startle you, but REF didn’t invent impact. I know. it’s a shock. Of course we had impact before REF, we just didn’t really call it that. I started my research career in 2003 and anything beyond the academic world was generally captured by words like ‘applied’, ‘knowledge transfer’ or in my own discipline ‘(health psychology) ‘implementation’.  Impact (with a big ‘I’) didn’t really hit our radar until its introduction to REF in 2011, and even then, only those involved in a REF 2014 submission had to invest effort in tracking, evidence gathering and causative narration. But impact is neither exclusive to or borne from REF. Please breathe again.

REF is a double edged sword (or ‘let’s elevate the value of applied work…..then make them dance for money’)

Unlike previous research assessment exercises, REF elevated the importance of research-driven real world change. For many of us, that recognition offered a welcome rebalancing of what it meant to ‘be an academic’.  However, formalising impact within assessment agendas also introduced weighting, ranking and a financially incentivised need to drive bigger, stronger, more important and further-reaching effects.  Whilst this has triggered investment and innovation, we’ve also witnessed a culture of anxiety and substantive institutional restructuring. If we can continue to use REF to catapult creativity, balanced with fair expectations (and reduced worry about repercussions of not doing impact), perhaps we can really deliver social benefit.

A need for impact literacy across the research system. 

Impact is important, but not all research should have impact. We need discovery science, just as we need philosophical shake-ups of academic assumptions. But we also have a duty of care to pass it forward, whether that’s beyond the academic wall, or to other, perhaps more applied academic counterparts. Everything we know about impact says it can’t be templated and is achieved through multiple routes. Some are scripted, some are opportunistic, but all involve decisions about the best and most purposeful approaches. With so many possible permutations, it’s incumbent on the research community to become impact literate (paper here or OA version here). Let’s be clear,  I don’t mean ‘more training for academics’. Of course training is needed, but what I’m talking about is an understanding of how impact ‘works’ across academics, research managers, institutional leadership, funders, publishers……..a commitment to recognising that impact looks, feels, and operates differently across disciplines and cannot be reduced to metrics at the ‘end’ of the journey.  Joyfully we are seeing considerable energy in this direction – Responsible Metrics calling out bad practice in quantifying effects, drives towards impact literacy embraced by publishers, ‘knowledge mobilisation’ arguably overtaking ‘transfer’ and ‘exchange’ as more expressive terms of implementation. We still have a long way to go, but the more everyone ‘in the frame’ is equipped to judge how their work connects into impact, the fairer (and more effective) we will be.

Finding meaning with ‘users’, not just ‘transferring knowledge’

I personally dislike the word ‘users’, as it conjures up images of some transactional process whereby academics apply their research to a waiting horde and *TA-DA* the public cry tears of joy that their lives are better. I’m not sure quite what language is better (very happy to be advised!) but whatever we use, we need to shift away from simplistic views of impact-as-productisation and impact-as-consumption. Impact can and must always be measured at the level of the beneficiary/ies, in terms of what is meaningful for them.  As we move forward, we’re seeing co-production and patient and public involvement weaved more substantially into research delivery, and this shift of focus away from blunt assessment currency can only be a good thing.

Disrupting simplistic, linear models of ‘ultimate’ impact

Logic models of impact are great (and endorsed fabulously elsewhere) but they can unintentionally reinforce an expectation of linearity. Input-output-outcome models routinely position impact as the ultimate endpoint of a research journey. Fine. Well not fine, actually, if that shifts assessment and thinking to so far down the line that it blinds us to those meaningful effects along the way.  I’ve written before about the dangers of focusing only on ethereal and magical endpoints but if we can truly understand the iterative and co-produced nature of impact, we can make some very meaningful changes indeed.

Valuing and investing in impact professional development or ‘There are people that do this stuff? Like, willingly?’

I’m extremely proud to lead the ARMA Impact Special Interest Group, a group of over 750 research managers with a core, or connected focus on impact. This community of practice grows every year in both size and combined expertise, and offers the most incredible combined set of insights into what it’s like to ‘do impact’. Yet REF risks painting a simple one to one picture of academic (project) to impact, leaving brokers and research manager invisible in impact discourse. Impact needs a strong and valued community of practice, both in terms of dedicated impact professionals and the integration of impact into academic career development. If we don’t acknowledge the skills, efforts and expertise inherent to driving research into practice, quite how much impact can we really expect to have?

Impact does not, and never has equalled REF. Impact is not about assessment compliance, nor is it about demonstrating effects at scale at the expense of meaningful change of any size. We need to recognise impact may be driven by REF, elevated by REF, or conversely deprioritised if it doesn’t ‘fit the REF mould’.

Impact already exists beyond REF.

So perhaps the question shouldn’t be what impact looks like beyond REF, it’s what you’d do even if it wasn’t being measured.

*This blog accompanies a plenary at the Making a Difference: Impact in the Social Sciences’ Conference, April 19th 2018, St Anne’s College, Oxford*

Coming to INORMS 2018? Feeling impact’y? Go on you know you want to

Are you heading for INORMS in June 2018? Are you secretly thinking about impact, and all the joys it holds?

Well, the first step is to admit it. Go on. Treat yourself.

Just as with ARMA conferences in the last few years, INORMS offers a fantastic opportunity to connect with the impact community. If you’re new to impact or a battleworn veteran, you are extremely and equally welcome. More so even than that, you are cordially invited to the Impact Special Interest Group session (Tuesday 5th June, 11.30-12.45, co-hosted by the completely wonderful David Phipps). The session is an opportunity to connect with those working in the same space, discuss areas of challenge/opportunity and to find ways to deliver impact in your own settings. Do consider coming along. There’s no wine/coffee but I’m fairly sure there’ll be flipchart paper and come on who doesn’t love that?

So go on, admit the impact love and indulge yourself. You know you want to.

See you there!

PS. If you’re new to impact/ARMA/INORMS, feeling daunted or just want to connect ahead of the conference feel free to drop me a line.

Impact, funders and ‘joining the dots’

I’ve just spent a fantastic afternoon in the company of representatives from a range of medical research charities and NIHR. The AMRC Impact coffee club – an informal name for a truly valuable group – provides a platform for AMRC and NIHR colleagues to share practice, discuss impact-related challenges, and move as a community towards ‘better impact’.

As you can imagine I was extremely pleased to speak about the challenges for academics (including unsurprisingly REF pressures, competing impact drivers and broader issues around professional development). But this blog isn’t about that….

The main thing that struck me, which strikes me every time I meet with funders, is the strength of commitment to research and effect. Now that sounds obvious of course, but it’s so easy for academics to default to seeing funders as faceless architects of those up-til-4am-with-copious-amounts-of-coffee-to-finish funding bids.

The thing is, everyone I meet from the funding community is driven by what *their* research can achieve. For science. For society. For researchers. For patients…..there is endless behind the scenes activity to amplify both new knowledge and new practice. And it’s not surprising that the medical charities present today have that weaved into their DNA.

I was also reminded however of the challenges of drawing together funders, academics, research managers, patients, carers, policy makers (*complete your own list here*) when the simple ‘impact’ word looks and feels so different for each. I talked today about how even when we’re committed to real world change, as academics we often face the stark choice between chasing impact or the high-quality-paper-which-will-get-us-promoted. From a distance these things don’t look in conflict, but in that microsecond between grant writing / marking essays / picking up workload in an understaffed department, that choice is very real. Ultimately however much you value social change, you’re going to prioritise paying the mortgage.

So where do we go from here? There is a HUGE appetite from the NIHR and AMRC to establish/ reinforce good working practices which support academics not add to the burden. For this to happen we need to establish better dialogue, translate our linguistic shorthands (User? Patient? Stakeholder?) and establish fair impact currencies.

Let’s join the dots. I think something rather amazing might happen

Knowledge broker competencies across the institution

As I sit here at the ARMA Advanced Routes to Impact training, I’m reminded that whilst having done a blog about impact literacy, I haven’t done one on knowledge broker competencies. So I’ll pull my finger out now…..

I’m sat listening to two fascinating talks by Anthony Atkin (University of Reading) and Jacqueline Young (Lancaster University) about institutional delivery of impact and considerations for skills localisation. ie. isolated impact officers doing everything vs. institutions harnessing skills across the university. The talks make mention of the impact literacy paper, but more so the knowledge broker competencies paper. In summary, this is a framework of 80 competencies in 11 categories which reflect the breadth of skills needed to deliver impact. Here’s a swanky looking diagram (thanks Research Media)

KMb competencies.png

There is a HUGE risk that if the diversity of skills aren’t recognised, (a) many impact officers will be working in hugely isolated roles, (b) competencies aren’t appropriately balanced across the organisation, (c) there is no investment in development and (d) impact is neither sustainable nor upscalable.

If we are truly committing to impact beyond short term assessment windows we need to review how it’s delivered (that’s not a dig at REF, it’s quite clear from Catriona Firth‘s talk that actually whilst the REF process is mechanistic, there is a far deeper commitment to longer term benefit through research).

So, impact colleagues, institutions and sector leads……take a step back and look at really what’s needed to deliver impact. Cut through the points of isolation and extend the impact love (ok skills) across the organisation. Surely that can only be a good thing?

Lincoln bound!

2018, and time for a new chapter……

I’m completely delighted to have just been appointed to a new and exciting position at the University of Lincoln. From May 2018 I’ll be the new Director of Research Impact Development, a post which will work across the university to build impact strategy and strengthen impact literacy.  Not only will I be able to support impact in its broadest terms, but I’ll maintain a research component (to keep me rooted in my academic discipline) and continue to connect into the wider research sector.  Basically I’ll be me, being me, for Lincoln, who seem to find that a useful combination.

It’s genuinely fantastic to see an institution taking such a forward looking view of impact.  This post embraces the value of impact beyond REF, and focuses on developing a positive impact culture.  It is to Lincoln’s credit that they have created an innovative post which supports research informed practice, recognises the value of blended professionals, and purposefully commits to driving impact with all its associated complexities.

It is in an enormous privilege to be welcomed into a new institution with such openness, and I’m excited to work with my many new colleagues. There’s already a huge wealth of expertise across impact and broader research management at UoL and I hope I can add something useful.

And before you ask, yes Lincoln are aware of the over excitable handwavy-ness, and they still want me. Turns out Lincoln are hardy people.