Monitoring and evaluation

The time has come for a better social dialogue between impact professionals

By 15/04/2013

“Impact is easy…” I heard Dr Michael Wykes, Director of the DESCRIBE Project at the University of Exeter, proclaim in his opening presentation to delegates at the Future of Impact Conference. What struck me about those words was just how liberating they were. It was as if, for a split second, the ‘anyone can do it’ ethos was about to burst forth and take us through the looking glass to a vision of the future where ‘punk impact’ or ‘DIY engagement’ is the norm and austerity and the REF 2014 a distant memory.

Unfortunately the reality of impact is rather more staid. The truth is that the future of impact is so tethered to the ‘value for money’ agenda that its future has essentially become its present – a perpetual reflection of the need for budgets in the HEI sector to survive spending reviews. Due largely to the context in which impact is packaged for the REF, the concept has been conceptually tainted and is, in the eyes of many, seen as symptomatic of a creeping commodification and monetization of research in the UK knowledge economy.

For this participant, the REF-centric framing of impact as a way to weather the storm of austerity cast a shadow over what could have been a valuable forum for discussing a future intellectual space for impact that releases its untapped potential. Whilst REF 2014 is the driving force behind the elevated status of impact in the UK knowledge economy, it is wielding a disfiguring influence over something that has incredible potential to mobilise researchers around engagement. The danger here is that audits of this sort become the knowledge economy’s equivalent of Crufts and the high-point of the impact calendar. Judging research ‘agility’ may seem far-fetched, but the competitive impulse is alive and well in the impact agenda. As a vision of the future it is far from appealing.

As the world did not end last December we can sleep safe in the knowledge that impact has a future and that this future can take a direction that transcends audits like the REF. However the influence of the REF will be far reaching. Already, as evidenced by the impressive delegation of impact specialists and experts at this conference, the impact agenda is already at an advanced stage of professionalization within the HE sector – a dynamic that favours a future of impact systems development that, quite rightly, deserves our attention.

Despite the advanced professionalization of impact maximization services, the core challenge of demystifying the process of achieving impact remains elusory. Due to their proximity to audiences and networks that are often outside the reach of academics, externals could play a valuable role in extending the reach of research.  The emergence of an ‘impact industry’ should be celebrated rather than derided as it offers fertile ground for innovation in knowledge exchange and creating valuable bridges between academic research and society.

To quote Rachel Bruce of JISC, reducing the ‘compliance burden on the sector’ increases the chances of a breakthrough in impact analysis that carries with it the interests and values of the research community. If the energy and enthusiasm for impact evident at the conference can be steered towards this goal, then clearly a feast of opportunity and untapped potential lies just around the corner.

Given the professionalization already evident around impact, I would argue that universities and research funding bodies are already industry leaders. However more needs to be done to develop knowledge exchange and collaborative working between professionals tackling impact in other areas, such as the third sector and donor funded public goods research.

We know that synergistic relationships between practitioners produce impact. If an impact industry is emerging in the UK it stands to be a world leader. We need to address a predominant culture that prevents knowledge exchange on evaluation methods and precludes cross-sectoral collaboration. The Future of Impact conference was evidence of a growing enthusiasm and passion for impact – enthusiasm that transcends the REF and is future-facing.

We need a strong ‘impact industry’ that serves the needs of researchers, promotes their interests and maintains the integrity of research. Collaboration amongst impact practitioners could be transformative in this regard and we need to explore this potential. A more vibrant social dialogue between impact professionals could be the catalyst.