Wednesday, 2 March 2011

More on research 'impact'

Research 'impact' is something that I've written about or referred to before in previous posts, but the topic just keeps on popping up. Two things have brought it back to my attention recently.

The first was a request within my School at Heriot-Watt University for examples of research that could be said to have made an impact - we came up with various topics to do with studies of transition economies and the policy advice that resulted from this work, but there were plenty of other things we could have mentioned. The second was the announcement by HEFCE, reported in the latest issues of Times Higher Education, that research impact would have a lower weighting in the first REF (Research Excellence Framework) exercise in 2014 than previously planned - 20% instead of 25%. Apparently research outputs will be weighted at 65%, and the research environment at 15%.

According to current plans for the REF, impact in the assessment period, January 2008 to July 2013, will be based on research carried out over the previous 15 years, reflecting the fact that impact sometimes takes a long time to come through. Departments will be expect to provide an 'impact statement' explaining how they have supported and encouraged 'impact', and they will have to submit 'impact case studies'.

Of course, these days academic departments are pretty good at jumping through hoops, so we shall no doubt think of something to say, possibly even something mildly sensible, to meet the impact requirements of the new REF. But seriously, does anyone really think that all this stuff about impact can possibly make much sense? The underlying agenda, it seems to me, is the current obsession with efficiency, accountability, and justifying what we do in universities both to politicians and to the general public. In other words, what we are being asked to do is play the currently fashionable political game.

But it's a pretty silly game, and I hope the fashion soon changes to something more meaningful. After all, what we're supposed to do in a university is undertake research in all sorts of areas that interest us, and that we have the talent and skills to undertake. Mostly, when we embark on a new project, we have no idea whether or how it will be 'useful' or have an 'impact', and very often the research that does turn out to have a big impact was not initially expected to do so. Often we just don't know, and more importantly, can't know, where impact will show up. That's part of what makes academic research so endlessly fascinating!

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