Beyond the Academy: The Impact Agenda and You

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As is widely known, the ‘Impact Agenda’ (where ‘impact’ is broadly defined as a contribution to UK economy, society and culture) was introduced as a criterion by HEFCE to assess performance in the REF. While ‘Impact’ has been very controversial —not least because of the problems associated with its definition, the sense that it instrumentalises research, and the question of how to provide evidence of it—nevertheless it has significantly changed the ways in which academic research is now discussed. 

Leaving aside the broader debate, I shall briefly consider here the way in which it may affect early-career lecturers. How, then, might the Impact Agenda apply to you, and more importantly, how can you shape it?

The first thing to note is that the application of the Impact Agenda, and expectations upon staff to demonstrate it, vary greatly by discipline and/ or unit of assessment. In other words, there may be disciplines where ‘impact’ may be easier to show than others. Research into graphene, for instance, has attracted a great deal of media attention, and appears to offer enormous possibilities to benefit the UK economy and society. By contrast, humanities-based research into other cultures, for instance (e.g. nineteenth-century Russian literature) may have a harder time when it comes demonstrating direct, immediate benefits to the UK’s economy, society, or culture—even though, I would argue, benefits are there (a subject for discussion elsewhere).

In most departments it is likely that the work only a handful of individuals or groups will be cited as ‘impact case studies’, so the burden to demonstrate ‘impact’ will not necessarily fall on each individual researcher. Nevertheless, the new lecturer trying to forge a research career sooner or later will find him- or herself facing the much larger question of impact and how—if at all—it can be incorporated into his or her research.

1. Engage in the debate

There has been heated debate about the limitations of the impact agenda and about whether ‘impact’ as it is currently defined is adequate to accounting for the deep, often long-term, unpredictable, and intangible benefits of research in various fields. As a new lecturer, you are a crucial part of that debate. You may have the time and intellectual energy to help shape the idea of impact in ways that are positive and not limiting. Seize the opportunity to shape the debate, through your own interventions within the university, as well as by discussing it publicly. This generation above all others has opportunities to change the debate through the unprecedented access to the public sphere offered by the internet and social media.

2. Look beyond traditional impact institutions

If impact is here to stay, it may be useful to consider the ways in which some of your research activity can be used to address a national issue. Business and heritage have been the two sectors that have been seen as the most obvious impact partners, but consider whether there are opportunities in the third sector (charities, governance groups, and voluntary groups) to engage with your research in some way, however small. Similarly, look to local councils, particularly for funding which might address equality and diversity issues. Perhaps you can put on a workshop, or offer a limited series of articles in a regional publication, on your research, or use it to do outreach work in schools. In short, engage with the impact agenda by looking beyond the knowledge impact agenda, and considering ways of enhancing societal engagement through your work.

3. Impact outside REF

Impact, of course, can be recast as a positive benefit or contribution in a far broader context than that of the REF and other performance measures. Depending on your personal values, you might decide to develop your own sense of your broader contribution to the academic community and to society beyond, and work to your own sense of impact in ways which move beyond the REF. Furthermore, any connections you might forge in the pursuit of a broader sense of engagement will enrich your own life, as well as enabling you to build a CV which might leave you with options for moving outside the Academy, as well as for prospering within it.

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