If you keep up with the Higher Education pages in the UK newspapers, you will know that there has been a great deal of comment on a mysterious entity called ‘impact’ lately. Impact is the latest government and research council buzz word for why our research must have some definable economic or social goal: where is the next technological gadget or government initiative coming from in otherwords. Impact will also replace esteem in the REF, which in itself, replaces the RAE, except with a bigger percentage
This impact business is concerning for a number of reasons. Esteem did not make up a huge proportion of the RAE, but impact will be 25%. Both were or will be hard to quantify. Impact will also be a criterion in deciding who gets funding and who doesn’t from the research councils. Impact also suggests a certain amount of short term thinking, which will hit the sciences just as much as the ever beleaguered arts and humanities. Research is, generally speaking, curiosity driven. I certainly do not spend my time trying to understand Norman history because I think it’s going to ameliorate the current economic crisis or bring about world peace overnight. I research the Normans for all sorts of kinds of ‘fluffy’ non-economic reasons: old-fashioned curiosity, a rather grudging admiration for what they managed to achieve, their wonderful historical writing, the beauty of their buildings etc. etc. None of this fits in with the current impact agenda as articulated by the government and research councils.
Impact has also been a hot topic of conversation in and around the department in which I work, particularly frustration at what is seen as a lack of a robust defence of our discipline from the research council (AHRC). Impact is seen as a very short-term thing. What can make an explosion this year, can be forgotten in the next. Often, carefully researched and written monographs and articles can take years to ‘make an impact’ in a field, but once they have, a rarely forgotten: students of Domesday Book will still refer back to Maitland. Writing a book is no longer seen as sufficient.
So how do we respond to this? I am not sure. A couple of colleagues have pointed out that writing a book, obtaining a contract from a publisher and then publishing it equates to economic impact. Publishers, generally speaking, will not take on books they expect to make a loss on. The book then also ticks another current buzz phrase, ‘knowledge transfer’. Libraries and individuals buy the book, which then contributes to the economy etc. (ok I am simplifying horribly, but you get the picture). A number of historians also contribute to radio, tv and film productions. This is, apparently, very good impact, but how do you archive it and is it sustainable? Radio, tv and film bodies are also commercial organisations, and should the public become bored with such programmes, where does that leave the historians, archaeologists, literature specialists etc.?
There are no quick and simple answers to this. Most people who apply for funds will become very adept at explaining why their particular area fits in with housing policy or will contribute to paying off the national debt in evermore tenuous phrases. We will shoe-horn our pet projects into the AHRC’s ring-fenced themes regardless of how well they fit. We will make up outcomes and impacts like there is no tomorrow, regardless of intellectual content. No doubt, some good will come of this, particularly if it leads to closer partnerships with outside bodies, but at what cost? Academics value their independence enormously. For many, it is the one thing that makes the job worthwhile (just look at the comments in the Higher and the Guardian). Do we risk losing that if we become solely reactive to government pressures and agendas?
So what do I think my research does? Can it contribute to society in anyway? To my mind, teaching, the act of passing knowledge on and, more importantly, equipping people with the skills to create knowledge and pass it on in turn, or just merely to be curious and critical about the world around them, is the best justification for anything that I do. It certainly has a longer-term impact than any amount of media exposure, government think-tankery, or AHRC trendy clusters. The trouble is that no one important enough seems to be saying either this, or defending knowledge for its own sake. This lack of leadership is what bothers me more than anything.