What is this impact, and how do we measure it? Do the shockwaves finally being generated by an academic “output” (another example of UK researchspeak) that was assessed in the previous Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) count as today’s impact? How does “impact” relate to “knowledge transfer,” the buzzword of yesterday? As we academics scramble from getting our heads round “KT” to self-assessing our “impact,” one gets the sense that more calibrated questions of impact’s definition and measurement, let alone assessment, are confounding the Research Councils as well: indeed, the latest news is that REF has been delayed by a year precisely because everyone is still trying to work out how “impact” might be assessed. It’s like the proverbial Indian nectar in a sieve, except that “nectar” might be too pleasant a word in this context.
Along the way, they had also become promises to the AHRC. I wrote a book on the Kashmir conflict and built a strong relationship with a Manchester-based organisation, Shisha, which brokers relationships between South Asian artists and the museums and galleries sector in the UK. I received one of the first AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowships to work with them on an exhibition bringing South Asian woman artists working on conflict to the North of England. As the exhibition and its ancillary programmes began to be rolled out, the word “impact” was increasingly heard. I am now one of the University’s success stories regarding “impact.” Molière’s Bourgeois gentilhomme, speaking prose all his life before he knew it was called thus, comes to mind.
I do not mean to suggest that academics should not seriously engage with issues of impact, which are, in the end, intimately bound up with our relationship to the public sphere at large. But I would like to close this rumination with three observations: firstly, I could not have done these “impactful” things if I had not, all those years ago, had that privileged space of four years of “impact free” postdoctoral research thanks to Trinity College, Cambridge, which demanded of me nothing but that I should read, write, and think — on whatever topic I wished — during that period. I was an unstressed early academic who had the luxury to consolidate her intellectual development on her own terms. Secondly, the impact we crave is chimerical — academics cannot predict the importance of their research and it is hubristic to imagine that we can dictate terms to the world outside of academia. As the Mahabharata declares, “do your duty without worrying unduly about the results.” Thirdly, and on a related point, the instrumentalisation of research is no guarantor of academic respectability, either to the world or to oneself.
Freedom of choice — to be as impactful as one might wish, or even not, as the case may be, is the hallmark of a secure and confident national research culture. That was the culture that drew me, as a wide-eyed student, to the bastions of excellence that then sealed the UK’s academic reputation. As I mature in my career in this country, viewing its evolving demands on academia, I wonder if the time has not come to exercise other choices open to me as a global citizen. The impact of impact, together with the restructuring of academia and public culture in other ways by government (I am thinking of the proposed cap on immigration by “skilled migrants”) may well be counter-productive for Britain’s academic reputation and culture in the long run, and that would be the real tragedy.