Research impact: individual interpretation and translation
About a month ago I completed my thesis for the MSc in Public Policy that I have been studying for the last two years.
Having worked with the ‘impact agenda’ since back in my Research Council days (pre 2010), and observing how academics attitudes and response to impact is changing, what I wanted to do with my masters research was to go beyond the ‘official’ impact policies and examine impact from the individual’s perspective. I wanted to understand how academics make sense of it in their everyday practice so was attracted by Yanow’s (1996) social constructivist approach to policy, in which policy is analysed as a process of translation influenced by social symbols and norms. I chose to focus on arts, humanities and social science researchers (AHSS) as they were initially among the most vocal protesters of impact as they had good reason to feel threatened by the limited economic terms in which these policies were initially framed. I wanted to unearth how academics in these particular disciplines have adapted to the impact agenda and if it was in fact changing their behaviour in anyway. I conducted eight semi-structured interviews with scholars from eight disciplines at one university and I came up with some fascinating results (fascinating, if like me you are a total impact geek!)
Values: What impact means to the individual is heavily influenced by the academics’ pre-existing beliefs and values and their own experience of enacting impact-related activity. Nearly all of the academics in the study share, by in large, a pre-disposition to want to engage beyond their academic colleagues: This has, I believe, shaped their receptivity to the impact agenda and their willingness to make impact work for them despite other resistance that exists.
Enactment: This may seem a statement of the ‘bleeding obvious’, but it is not until academics have the opportunity to be involved in impact activity do they really have the opportunity to analyse and breakdown what impact means for their research objectives and importantly how they can help facilitate impact from their work. This opportunity to ‘do’ is essential and all of the academics I interviewed had nearly all received IAA funding or had been involved in drafting impact case studies and therefore had had the opportunity to think deeply about both the positives and negatives of ‘doing impact’.
Intermediaries: Professional services staff are very important in helping the academics - in this study at least - to articulate an individual definition of impact. Professional services staff fulfill multiple roles. They offer practical help such as guidance and assistance to complete funding applications and projects; support academics in drafting impact case studies; offer morale support and they also act as creative facilitators stimulating and encouraging academics to creatively consider the potential impact of their research. I can confidently say that the university in which this study was conducted is one of the better resourced with high caliber staff. The quality of staff supporting academics to navigate research impact is important.
Recognition: Finding of this study that I did not expect is how AHSS academics are benefitting from the impact agenda. The drive to demonstrate impact has brought new institutional recognition and status for activities conducted by AHSS scholars that before was perhaps looked down upon for not being ‘serious’ research. There are also new opportunities for additional funding in the form of impact awards. One professor was very clear that his impact related activity contributed to his promotion, something that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.
Behaviour: All of academics in the study were adamant that they had not changed their research behaviour, but it was evident that there has been attitudinal change. Academics have been forced to consider questions of accountability, which for some has led to some deep reflections on the nature of being an academic. There has also been behaviour change in regards the types of activities academics now participate in, the wider networks of contacts and collaborators they now expose themselves to they. It has as one academic put it extended the boundaries of what is acceptable and permissible and has encouraged creativity.
The findings reveal a fascinating process of policy translation, where impact is being individualised, with academic researchers re-interpreting impact according to their own underlying values, beliefs and research practices. It also revealed how for some AHSS scholars impact agenda has bestowed unexpected benefits that includes access to new sources of funding and greater institutional recognition for work they were doing anyway. But it is by no means all rosy. Many aspects of the impact agenda remain problematic. All of the academics demonstrated feelings of ambiguity and contradiction in relation to impact, all complained of how much time it took to do it well and for many it confirmed for some the view of research impact as a product of the neo-liberalisation of higher education. This is to be expected as research impact and its realisation from policy to act, reveals that it is highly complex and emotional process. I will devote another blog post to an analysis of the academics critiques and observations of the ‘downside of impact’.