Impact and Outreach: What's the difference?

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These days as universities are now looking ahead to the next REF and starting to collate data on impact activities, some academics are learning the hard way about the difference between impact and outreach, both of which they might have assumed were similar forms of public engagement. All too often junior or even mid-level staff cheerfully send in detailed accounts of various talks, seminars and numerous other public engagements - all testifying to their deep commitment to disseminating their work as widely as possible -  and are then downcast to discover that, as far as the REF is concerned, none of it really counts. 

But why doesn’t my public lecture/ seminar series etc. count? 

You may have heard it said that the key difference between impact and outreach lies in audience. Outreach is for schools; impact addresses the general public. But it isn’t quite as straightforward as that. While it is true that outreach tends to mean working with schools, it is not true that impact case studies can’t be made on the basis of such work as well. And neither is it the case that general public activities are all impact activities.

So what is the difference, then? Put simply, impact has to be underpinned by research. In other words, there must be named research outputs that clearly and directly feed into the impact narrative you are creating.

That’s right. It doesn’t matter how many people attended your lectures, seminars, exhibitions, readings and so forth, nor how many wrote to you afterwards to tell you how enlightened they were and their lives transformed – if you don’t tie it in with your research in the first instance, and package it thereafter as a research project, as far as the REF is concerned, its impact is – well – zero.

And then there’s reach… and evidence

Not only do you have to demonstrate how your impact activities are firmly embedded in your research, you also need to consider their reach, and the evidence for it. ‘Reach’ includes considering how you have enabled people to acquire, practice, or use new skills, not merely to listen to your ideas on a particular subject. (In other words, think about teaching people to compose a piece of music, not to listen to your ideas about music). And at the last REF ‘evidence of reach’ took the form of corroboration (written testimony) from five separate individuals. Similar evidential requirements should be expected next time round.

Remember too that even if your impact narrative meets these criteria, only a certain number of impact case studies will selected to be returned to any unit of assessment. All universities will put impact case studies through rigorous internal and external reviews before they are advanced to the REF, and only a small proportion will get through the net, since so much rests on a department’s impact rating.

So even though you may have done all of the above you may find that your work is still not considered sufficient to be put forward as one of the case studies selected for your particular unit of assessment. The reasons for this could be many: there may be too much overlap between your impact work and someone else’s, or it may, despite your best efforts, not look ‘big’ enough to carry the weight of an entire department.

If this is the case, do not take it personally, and consider instead the difference between impact and influence…

Impact v influence, or why bother with Outreach?

It is important to remember that the impact agenda is an instrumentalist, government-driven agenda based around short-term monitoring of particular forms of activities, with all the well-rehearsed limitations that such an approach entails. Outreach activities (including widening participation and general engagement activities) may have less clearly measurable outcomes, but allow for the spread of influence across longer periods of time. Furthermore, they can arise organically out of your teaching interests, rather than strictly from a constrained research agenda.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the impact agenda, remember that outreach work contributes to civic society, creating rich and deep networks of connection between universities and communities, and with lasting influence that may go far beyond any short-term impact.

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