The Impact Effect 

Recently RCUK, the umbrella body for the seven UK research councils, had a discussion about the language of impact. As many will know, all councils require statements about impact on grant applications. We discussed whether these should be called ‘plans’ or ‘proposals’ for impact. Some, including me, opposed ‘plans’ because it suggests structured and forecastable development, whereas ‘proposals’ better captures the revisable uncertainty of research outcomes.

There were views on both sides and in the end we found a compromise with ‘pathways’ implying both purpose and direction and a plurality of potential outcomes.

Behind this slightly Jesuitical discussion are real issues. Impact is a deeply felt and controversial matter and, as in most disputes of great sensitivity, text is read and re-read with close attention. It is a sensitive area because it engages issues of great complexity and significance. Does knowledge have a functional or intrinsic value? Can it be directed, or does it emerge from the talents of researchers? Who owns it? Behind these there are further big issues: the importance of freedom of intellectual enquiry and of relatively unconstrained freedom of expression; the non-interference of governments in the scope and nature of research (the so-called ‘Haldane principle’); and the civic value of the independence and autonomy of universities. All of these are embedded deep in the history and psychology of the European and US academic traditions.

The reasons behind these strong statements of principle are political (the right to speak truth to power, for instance) and this, for many, represents an assertion of fundamental, and probably intrinsic value. But the justifications are also of a practical and functional kind. There is very little in history to demonstrate that humans reliably predict benefits at distance. Research results are chancy, emergent, often unforeseeable and a richer harvest is gained by allowing many flowers to bloom. The research process is too haphazard, too full of false starts and the thrill of the unexpected, to place great faith in over-particular planning. The discordance between plans (which tend to project the needs of the moment) and outcomes (which reveal the possibilities of the future) is an energising tension for research. The pleasurable surprise of discovery is a powerful motivator for doing and for imagining the benefits that follow from it.

Few sensible people, I would have thought, can deny the significance and practical advantages of the principles of freedom of enquiry noted above, or their relation to some of the more admirable values in our culture. But it would be silly to deny that such principles can sometimes also act as cover for less compelling behaviours, among which are insularity, epistemological narcissism and apparent disregard for the very public benefit in whose name the principle is articulated. In any vigorous, let alone decadent, intellectual culture both behaviours can be observed.

For me, thinking about impact as a challenge and not as a threat is part of this recognition. This is because impact encourages us to conceive of the disparate kinds of benefit research produces which are of many kinds. Sometimes the outcomes are of direct practical advantage. This is a prominent issue for many politicians rightly preoccupied by the need to harness fresh resources and economic productivity in troubled times. But impact also sets stimulating challenges to research communities that believe in the value of freedom of enquiry. If one believes in that freedom, I think one needs to be able to specify in what that value consists.

A less high-principled version of this argument is to say, as many do, that if the tax-payer funds the work, the tax-payer should have the benefit explained. This may strike some as crude value-for-money accountability. But it is, nonetheless, a pressing, reasonable and un-avoidable question, and it is one that is logically separable from the issue of what happens if the tax-payer is unconvinced by the answer. (In which case the work has already been funded and done; society has invested in the principle of free enquiry; but more compelling justifications for further activity are needed.) Asking the bracing question ‘what for?’ makes us think about, and understand more fully, the rationale for research in both particular and general senses: it is particular in relation to this bit of research; it is general in our understanding of the social role of research itself. After all, knowledge is a social product whose value relies on interaction between people, and the more people involved in this the better. That too is a key principle of an open and educated society.

At the present time, impact is a story being written and implemented, and there is much to be done to develop sensible procedures for its recognition. The word is ugly, and the concept uses its elbows in places unused to such behaviour: so the intrusion is resented by some. But open enquiry requires us to respond to such questions, and if we don’t have good responses then the problem is ours. The fault does not lie in the question.

Rick Rylance is Chief Executive of the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

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