‘Impact’ and the new Research Assessment Exercise

16 December 2009

Since late September, a topic that has gripped British university departments is the latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) proposal, now renamed the Research Excellence Framework.  The REF is controversial because, in addition to the usual evidence required for the RAE (publications, research environment and esteem), a further category has been introduced, that of ‘impact’.

As Stefan Collini has noted:

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”. (Impact on Humanities, The Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009)

Collini and others have already stated the case against the inclusion of this category of evidence for assessment and have denounced the matter as yet another example of inappropriate business practice being imposed on the education sector. What interests me is how the whole debate fits in with the concerns of those of us at the bottom of the university food chain.

The Question of Engagement

This controversy has made me revisit the question of engagement. This is a word that was sucked up by the business world and spat out slightly deformed; it is a word beloved of university alumni offices, whose use of it ranges from a meaning synonymous with ‘involvement’ to one approximating ‘outreach’. But the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed., 1989) gives us an additional definition: Moral or legal obligation; a tie of duty or gratitude.

Nowadays it’s unusual to speak of morality or obligation in everyday life—let alone in a research context. The grand narratives shaped by the moral frameworks of earlier generations are long dead, while the ideologies that permeated twentieth-century scholarship have lost their acceptability and appeal.

We now value a self-reflexive  approach to research in the humanities: academics are wary of anachronism and try to avoid any hint of advocacy (even in support of the younger ideologies of multiculturalism and the environmental movement).  Universal history has become local history; totalizing narratives have been replaced by fragmented explanations. New cultural history has transformed the way we interpret and explain the past, but one of its costs has been that scholarship has grown more specialized. As Steven Shapin has observed:

The problem is not the scale of what we write about but our interest in writing about our subjects and the connections we make as we write about them. When Walter Bagehot said that “the bane of philosophy is pomposity,” it was because “people will not see that small things are the miniatures of greater.” (‘Hyperprofessionalism and the Crisis of Readership in the History of Science,’ Isis 96(2005), 238-43)

Sometimes the sheer detail in historical analysis and an aversion to any kind of synthesis or connection with other fields results in a disappointing conclusion at the end of a publication; I often wish the author had kept on going, kept on writing about how their findings relate to broader—perhaps contemporary—concerns, or why the topic is of such interest to them.

The Freedom to Forget?

In my own research, I try not to forget about its wider implications and continually reassess why it interests me. I have found that for my research to be satisfying, for it to be more than just a job, for it to have value beyond being just ‘an original contribution to knowledge’, and for it to be meaningful to an audience broader than my immediate peers, I have to understand and explain how it contributes to some of the key questions of our time.

Yet I recognize that not everyone feels the same way; one of the enduring attractions of academia is that if you so choose, you can pursue a career without ever having to deal with current affairs or popular culture. (My decision not to work on the contemporary Middle East was a deliberate one.) As it stands, the ‘impact’ clause of the REF proposal valorizes a narrow selection of ‘demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society’ that are required of all researchers, regardless of their interests and inclinations.

While it’s easy to mock dons in their ivory towers, neither the government nor university administrators can transform academics into entrepreneurial media types through sheer force of regulation alone—nor should they try to. And any definition of the ‘impact’ of research that excludes its influence on teaching is a joke. It should be removed entirely from the criteria of assessment.

The Value of Public Service

However, I still believe in the value of engagement. What we need is for the HEFCE and universities to encourage an ethos of public service (that is independent of funding competitions), which is something that benefits researchers and the public alike.

The sciences and humanities enrich our understanding of the world while the debates and critical enquiry fostered within the research environment are an essential part of a healthy democratic society; yet too few people benefit from our labours. Clive James has argued that:

In the long run it might seem [that greatness is everything], but in the shorter run, which is the run of everyday life, a civilization is irrigated and sustained by its common interchange of ordinary intelligence. (Cultural Amnesia, 2nd ed. (London, 2008), 4)

There is much to be gained by contributing to the ‘common interchange of ordinary intelligence,’ and modern technology makes it easier than ever to bring our ideas to a wider audience.  In doing so we are not only speaking to people who may have contributed to our funding via taxation, but we will also be reaching academics from different disciplines. I also think we will gain more satisfaction from our work by bringing it to a more diverse range of people. However, there is one inescapable hurdle: writing for a wider audience requires concision and enthusiasm—two qualities lacking in much academic writing.

All in all, while I hold the inclusion of ‘impact’ in research assessment to be a mistake, I still think there is much to be gained from greater involvement with the public sphere. Not only does the research community have an obligation to disseminate work more widely, but our academic writing might just benefit also.


  • James Ladyman has created a petition to reverse ‘the Research Councils and HEFCE policy to direct funds to projects whose outcomes are determined to have a significant ‘impact’.’ http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/REFandimpact/
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