Thursday, November 26, 2009

The I-Word

The reviled word of the year in academic circles is, surely, impact. Is it really such a bad thing?

Firstly the Research Councils now require applicants for funding to assess the impact of the proposed research. The Research Councils invest £28 billion in research annually [RCUK Report, Excellence with Impact,]. It is reasonable to ask what benefit the UK derives from this investment. According to the guidance for applicants for funding [], impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy and can include fostering economic performance, increasing the effectiveness of public policy and enhancing the quality of life. In the impact summary applicants are asked to specify who will benefit from their research, how they will benefit, and what will be done to ensure that they have opportunity to benefit. Most of the Research Councils also require an Impact Plan that describes what the researchers will do to enhance the impact of the research. A diverse range of activities could be included in this plan, depending on what type of research is proposed. The Science and Technology Facilities Council guidance, for example, includes suggestions such as publications and publicity materials summarising the main outcomes in a way that beneficiaries will be able to understand and use or developing resources for schools or teachers.

Secondly, the current proposals for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) [] that will replace the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) are that research excellence, measured by peer review informed by citation analysis, will count for 60%, impact, assessed by an impact statement and case studies will count for 25% and research environment, assessed under the headings resourcing, management and engagement, will count for 15%. The draft ‘common menu’ of impact indicators includes

  • Employment of post-doctoral researchers in industry or spin-out companies.
  • Participation on public policy/advisory committees.
  • Changes to public attitudes to science.
  • Audience/participation levels at public engagement activities.
  • Positive reviews or participant feed back on public engagement activities.

These proposals could be very positive for women in science. My impression is that women often are concerned about the broader impact of their research. Also, explicit recognition of engagement activities is a welcome development, both in the funding process, where applicants have to assess the resource implications of their impact plan, and through the REF. In principle, these changes could encourage departments to take a broader view in their selection criteria for appointments and promotion. In addition, explicitly mentioning employment of post-doctoral workers as a criterion should encourage principal investigators to support the career development of their post-docs.

There are areas of concern. For example, will ‘hard’ measures of impact, such as research income from industry, outweigh ‘soft’ measures such as those relating to public engagement activities? Nevertheless, including an impact element both in criteria for funding and in criteria for assessment could help drive science departments to become more inclusive.

1 comment:

  1. I can see the rationale around asking for "impact". However, I do worry about how "impactful" the work of many esteemed academics whose work was groundbreaking in centuries past, would have seemed at the time. Since so much knowledge is built upon from other's (in many cases obscure) work - it is difficult at best to measure impact at the time research grants are given. Often we do not see true impact of someone's ideas until after it is forgotten and then "rediscovered" - often to benefit a completely different field.