November 16, 2009


Impact on humanities: Researchers must take a stand now or be judged and rewarded as salesmen (Stefan Collini, 11/13/09, TLS)

In many respects, the REF will be quite like the RAE, and will require similar kinds of evidence in the submissions (selected publications, information about research environment, etc). But one very significant new element has been introduced. In this exercise, approximately 25 per cent of the rating (the exact proportion is yet to be confirmed) will be allocated for “impact”. The premiss is that research must “achieve demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society”. The guidelines make clear that “impact” does not include “intellectual influence” on the work of other scholars and does not include influence on the “content” of teaching. It has to be impact which is “outside” academia, on other “research users” (and assessment panels will now include, alongside senior academics, “a wider range of users”). Moreover, this impact must be the outcome of a university department’s own “efforts to exploit or apply the research findings”: it cannot claim credit for the ways other people may happen to have made use of those “findings”.

As always, the reality behind the abstractions which make up the main guidelines emerges more clearly from the illustrative details. The paragraphs about “impact indicators” give some sense of what is involved. The document specifies that some indicators relate to “outcomes (for example, improved health outcomes or growth in business revenue)”; other indicators show that the research in question “has value to user communities (such as research income)”; while still others provide “clear evidence of progress towards positive outcomes (such as the take-up or application of new products, policy advice, medical interventions, and so on)”. The document offers a “menu” of “impact indicators” that will be accepted: it runs to thirty-seven bullet points. Nearly all of these refer to “creating new businesses”, “commercialising new products or processes”, attracting “R&D investment from global business”, informing “public policy-making” or improving “public services”, improving “patient care or health outcomes”, and improving “social welfare, social cohesion or national security” (a particularly bizarre grouping). Only five of the bullet points are grouped under the heading “Cultural enrichment”. These include such things as “increased levels of public engagement with science and research (for example, as measured by surveys)” and “changes to public attitudes to science (for example, as measured by surveys)”. The final bullet point is headed “Other quality of life benefits”: in this case, uniquely, no examples are provided. The one line under this heading simply says “Please suggest what might also be included in this list”.

The priorities indicated by these phrases recur throughout the document. For example, in explaining how the “impact profile” of each department will be ranked as “four star”, “three star”, and so on, it provides “draft definitions of levels for the impact sub-profiles”. That for “three star” reads: “highly innovative (but not quite ground-breaking) impacts such as new products or processes, relevant to several situations have been demonstrated”. (Sentence-construction is not a forte of the document.) And there is also a rather chilling paragraph which reads: “Concerns have been raised about the indirect route through which research in some fields leads to social or economic impact; that is, by influencing other disciplines that are ‘closer to market’ (for example, research in mathematics could influence engineering research that in turn has an economic impact). We intend to develop an approach that will give due credit for this”.

Clearly, the authors of this document, struggling to give expression to the will of their political masters, are chiefly thinking of economic, medical, and policy “impacts”, and they chiefly have in mind, therefore, those scientific, medical, technological, and social scientific disciplines that are, as the quoted phrase puts it, “closer to market”.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 16, 2009 6:56 AM
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