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.

Impact and Patient Involvement – what’s fair?

We all know public and patient involvement (PPI) is fundamentally important to health research, but what does it mean for impact? How does it challenge our simple definitions of impact? And how can we most meaningfully articulate the benefits of patient involvement in driving real world benefits?

Yesterday I attended a fantastic first meeting of the NIHR Working Group on Public Involvement and Engagement Impact. This group, convened and led by Simon Denegri (@SDenegri), is tasked with unpicking these and further issues around the PPI-impact link. Consisting of a wonderful assembly of PPI leads, impact people, Department of Health strategists and – most importantly – patient representatives, the working group is a space to challenge, agree, disagree, champion and have those vital lightbulb moments only possible through shared learning.

The working group leadership will draw together the broad and energetic discussions into some coherent summaries(!), but ahead of that, I think it’s fair to say:

  • There is HUGE commitment to meaningful patient involvement, and excellent work going on across the country to strengthen how this is done in practice
  • There is an undoubted challenge in knitting this together with the ‘impact agenda’ within the research sector, and a need to avoid simplifying PPI as just a pathway towards something measurable. PPI does something far more, has effects which are far less ‘tangible’, and cannot be decoupled from the value to patient, researcher and research alike.
  • Ultimately there is a moral and ethical right for patients (and their carers) to have their voice heard in research which affects them. We cannot and should not dilute their voice and instead need to look to our research processes to see where we can improve this relationship.

Where that gets us for impact remains to be seen. But I’m definitely looking forward to working it out.

Chasing the impact unicorn

Impact is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to impact.*

Nah.

Impact is change. Simples. We just want it to be mind-bogglingly and intergalactically big because REF and funders and careers and stuff.  But sometimes we need to just go back to basics and think about what change really means.  And what it means for those our work reaches.

Perhaps we need to stop chasing some fantastical possibility.

Perhaps we need to stop chasing some mythical impact unicorn.

If only someone could write a blog (for NIHR) on that oh no wait I have how handy go look here right now.

Enjoy!

* Kindly borrowed from Douglas Adams. I hope he’d approve

REF impact consultation 18/1/18: spoiler, no answers yet.

Yesterday I took part in a REF Impact consultation event in London. This workshop formed part of the broader consultation REF are undertaking with the sector to iron out some of the remaining issues following the ‘final decisions’ announced in November.  In attendance were several of the main panel chairs, sub-panel chairs, senior university staff and impact partners (eg. assessors from 2014)

The two key foci of this particular event were additionality (ie. how to accommodate continuing case studies) and expanding the underpinning research base (ie. addressing concerns over limiting case studies to a linear connection between ‘project’ and ‘effect’.  Let me start by saying immediately we don’t yet have the decisions about these.  The discussions reflected the complexity and implications surrounding these issues and doubtless REF have a huge job on their hands to wrestle with the breadth of feedback and areas of dissent.  This won’t be easy and it will have to balance a myriad of considerations.

However, several core messages came through strongly:

  • The REF team and main panel chairs were fully in agreement about their commitment to make the assessments fair and rigorous, and with recognition of the challenges/game playing last time.
  • There was general consensus that irrespective of whether something is continuing or not, the key question should be does it stand up as a case study in its own right?  Fairly ‘spirited’ discussions happened about how to articulate continuing impact, whether it should even be flagged, how it would be assessed etc. Ultimately everyone seemed to settle on simplicity and fairness being the main principles and that a continuing case study (or whatever it should be called) should be measured on its own merits.
  • The implications of broadening ‘underpinning research’ to loosen the linear connection between research and impacts and reflect a broader body of accumulate expertise were source of deep discussion.  There was real debate around where the lines should be drawn between broader research activities (not just for instance 2* papers) and those which are more engagement in character. Whilst superficially ‘broadening’ conceptually better values the academic lifecourse, it raises significant issues for assessment, judgement, and eligibility of materials for submissions.
  • All discussions reflected the broader sector and institutional challenges around impact management, assessment, narrative construction, implications for (eg) progression, incentivising short term vs long term impact and many other issues.
  • There is clear recognition that however ‘neat’ the decisions, these sit within a complex ecosystem and must be accompanied with clear guidance and underpinning principles. With institutional stakes high, and submissions so nuanced, text-only communication cannot ‘carry the burden’ of conveying such weighty expectations and must be complemented with broader communication and outreach.

The REF team will be holding several more consultations, and will be synthesising feedback into guidance following this. I don’t envy them at all, but after yesterday I’m convinced there is a real commitment to recognising – if not being able to fully accommodate – voices from the sector.

 

 

The psychology of being a patient with a chronic vascular condition. Or ‘the joy of DVTs’

Many of you will know about my health fun and games. And by fun and games I mean multiple deep vein thromboses (DVTs), those cocky little blood clots that keep colonising my left leg. The saga can probably be shorthanded to ‘9 years ago my veins decided that blood flow was overrated and shut up shop’.

Flippancy aside, the chronic pain and mobility difficulties have been horrendous, not to mention the impact on my family. And I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve ended up sobbing mid conference because of the pain of just ‘sitting’. Thankfully, overlooking the ‘unexpected clot incident of 2016‘, I’m generally far more mobile and my limp takes longer to kick in. And my walking stick now only gets broken out for special occasions.

Anyway fast forward to June 2017. I’ve been given the name of a fantastic specialist in London whose expertise may actually help fix me, when it seemed unfixable. (Spoiler, we still don’t know if it is, but let’s hope Thursday’s MRI scan shows something positive). I go for a consultation (which led to the MRI) and the discussion takes an unexpected turn. My consultant is concerned about how psychologically and emotionally difficult vascular problems can be for patients and and invites me (as a Health Psychologist) to help. Somehow.

The first step has been writing an invited commentary for ‘Venous News’, the professional magazine for vascular practitioners. This has been a chance to headline, as a patient and psychologist, the fallout of living with a long term condition. It’s a personal account, but far from unique and certainly mirrored across other conditions. I’m hopeful it helps build understanding of the invisible side of long term ill-health.

The opportunity to be able to use this pretty horrid experience, in a professional capacity, and maybe (*fingers crossed*) have some impact is a luxury many people don’t have.  I hope this is the start of a much longer journey to support patients and those clinicians who clearly care enormously about their patients’ welfare.

You can read the piece online (pg 10) or view as a pdf. Thanks to Mr Stephen Black and Venous News for the invitation.

For more information about DVTs check out @ThrombosisUK