The Future of ‘Impact’ in the UK

I’m reading through the Stern review in preparation for various impact related things I’m doing in the next few weeks. It takes the view that the 6,975 impact case studies produced and £55 million estimated to have been spent on the impact element of the last REF has clearly contributed to “an evolving culture of wider engagement, enhancing delivery of the benefits arising from research”. These costs could be mitigated in future because “participating institutions now have processes in place to capture the information required”. Or perhaps they might expand, as the infrastructure surrounding the assessment described here by Les Back seems likely to grow, even if the number of case studies does not increase much as per Stern’s recommendations.

Offering institutions more flexibility in the distribution of case studies (as opposed to requiring a certain number of case studies proportionally to the number of staff submitted to a unit of assessment) could have interesting results. As will the recommendation for ‘institutional level’ impact case studies, both in terms of identifying cross-disciplinary impacts which might otherwise fall between the cracks and perhaps justifying institutional level investments in impact capacity: 

Some of these aspects of environment reflect the strategy, support and actions of the institution as a whole. This has not been assessed in REF2014 and we recommend that this should be captured in a new Institutional Environment Statement, which complements the Unit of Assessment Environment Statement.

Environment and impact are mutually supportive and should be seen together. The strategy and support of impact are closely linked to the environment for research at both Unit of Assessment and institutional level. Therefore, it is also recommended that the aspects captured by the Impact template of REF2014 should be incorporated into both the Unit of Assessment and Institutional level Environment statement.

This will involve recognising:

  • the features of the research environment that are the product of institutional level activity, including steps taken to promote interdisciplinary and other joint working internally and externally and to support engagement and impact, beyond that which is just the aggregate of individual units of assessment
  • the future research and knowledge exchange strategy of the HEI, as well as the individual Units of Assessment, and the extent to which both have delivered on the strategies set out in the previous REF
  • the individualism of the HEI and the eclecticism of academic life within it
  • the contribution that its academics make to the wider academy (‘academic citizenship’).

Each statement would focus on how the institution or Unit of Assessment enhances the development of research capability within it, how it provides opportunities for high quality research and related activities, how it motivates and rewards researchers, and the contributions made to the wider academic community.

Additionally, weakening the link between impact and research outputs could have interesting implications for social media activity, expanding the range of activity which can be measured and argued to lead to impact.

The review suggests that the potential range of impacts possible to record was made narrower by the assessment process. It also advocates emphasising cultural impact and now recognising impact internal to higher education, including though hopefully not limited to teaching:

We recommend that impacts on public engagement and understanding are emphasised and that impacts on cultural life be specifically included. Better to align the REF with the TEF, we also recommend that research leading to major impacts on curricula and /or pedagogy within or across disciplines should be included; and in order to encourage long-term, interdisciplinary research endeavours, we recommend that ground breaking academic impacts such as research leading to the creation of new disciplines should be included.

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