Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Research Intelligence - the Prodigal Returns to Open Arms

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Research Intelligence - the Prodigal Returns to Open Arms

Article excerpt

Impact makes Australian comeback after successful UK tour. Paul Jump reports.

Australians are well known for their boomerangs - and it seems that even elements of research policy that they throw away sometimes come back.

A policy of assessing the impact of Australian universities' research was first proposed in the mid-2000s by the Liberal-National coalition government led by John Howard.

It was proposed that impact would account for 20 per cent of the scores in a new national research assessment programme, known as the research quality framework (RQF), along the lines of the UK's research assessment exercise.

The government committee that developed the impact methodology was chaired by Claire Donovan, who is now a reader in assessing research impact at Brunel University.

In her view, Howard's right-wing government wanted to boost innovation by linking academic concerns more closely to those of industry. But, she added, it also wanted to demonstrate that the humanities and the social sciences - to which it was "hostile" - were "useless and (consisted of) ivory tower conversations that don't mean anything to the normal Australian".

Nevertheless, the inability of any available metrics to account for the cultural impact of humanities research was one of the arguments her committee used to lobby successfully for an assessment approach based on narrative case studies.

The elite Group of Eight universities, however, remained fiercely opposed to assessment based on impact. Dr Donovan's perception was that they were concerned about funding being diverted from high-quality research.

But according to Lyn Yates, pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Melbourne, a Group of Eight member, the opposition stemmed more from concerns over the extra administrative burden of impact reporting.

"In fact, we were pretty confident we would come out top or near the top on impact as well," she said.

Either way, the Group of Eight's views were picked up and taken to heart by Kim Carr, the opposition Labor Party's shadow minister, who tossed the impact agenda into the distance when his party came to power in 2007 and he became minister for innovation, industry, science and research.

But it was not long before impact assessment appeared in the blue skies of UK academia. A report commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2009 identified the RQF's approach as the most sophisticated yet devised, and Hefce drew heavily on it during its formulation of the impact element of the research excellence framework - the first submissions to which are due next year.

Meanwhile, back Down Under, the RQF, stripped of its impact element, was renamed Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) and was run for the first time in 2010.

But the Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN) in particular was unimpressed, and last year announced plans to run its own pilot exercise in impact assessment.

Much to observers' surprise, the Group of Eight then asked to join in with what became known as Excellence in Innovation for Australia (EIA). According to Dr Donovan, the key to the change of heart was the fact that the EIA would be entirely separate from the ERA - with the implication that if it were linked to university funding, it would draw from a separate funding pot. Professor Yates agreed that it was "helpful" to keep the ERA and the EIA separate "so that they are not conflated in a muddied way". …

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