The Impact of "Impact"

Reading a grant application for a Danish research project that I participate in, the following sentence caught my eye: “[A]pplicability is desirable, but not a demand. Grundforschung is the main aim.” Taking “applicability” to be roughly equivalent to “impact,” the current buzzword of the UK Research Councils, I found myself enviously contemplating the research culture that could produce such a sentence. In the UK today, academics cannot afford not to want to be impactful, or their work to be ‘applicable’.  On every application for funding we make to any Research Council, a “statement of impact” is not merely desirable; it is very much a demand. Within the next round of national research assessment, the “REF” (which itself keeps changing its nomenclature every time it happens, producing a welter of confusing acronyms), “impact” will amount to 20% of whatever else is assessed in each “Unit of Assessment” (schools, departments, faculties).

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.

Cavilling about “impact” and “KT” might seem very strange, and possibly ungrateful, coming from me. Ten years ago, as a fully trained medievalist (of the European Early Middle Ages), with a book contract with CUP for my Ph.D. dissertation and a plum, sequestered postdoctoral fellowship, I was chafing at the bit for something different. In India, a right-wing government was in the seat of power; public discourse about minorities was getting dangerously reminiscent of Nazi Germany; and, on the global stage, the War on Terror was imminent. I wanted to “do something relevant” with the analytical and persuasive skills I had garnered during my Ph.D. research, but being an early medievalist seemed a difficult way to do anything significant for the world. I was naïve and young(er) and anything seemed possible. I threw it all up in the air and started anew, changing my research trajectory to work on and in a conflict zone (Indian Kashmir). I was immersed in working out how issues of conflict might be inflected through non-textual modes of expression, and dreamt about the possibilities of “cultural diplomacy” through the arts. I had no job lined up, and had seemingly derailed a successful trajectory. The University of Leeds came to my rescue and I got a lectureship that enabled me to do all these things, though I didn’t realise it would take so long — a decade — to deliver those promises to myself.

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.

Is it not self-contradictory of me now to ponder on the impact of impact?

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.

Ananya Jahanar Kabir teaches in the School of English at the University of Leeds in the UK.

ananya jahanara kabir