Magazine article Times Higher Education

Impact, by Popular Demand

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Impact, by Popular Demand

Article excerpt

Many more outside academia must help to plot research course, argue Christiaan De Beukelaer and Jan Baetens

For academics, impact is becoming a way of life. Predicting and documenting the immediate applicability of our research is now a well-established part of the academic job description.

But while the political architects of the impact agenda may rejoice, there is mounting evidence that what we call the "impact imperative" is having grave unintended consequences.

A study earlier this year revealed that UK and Australian academics routinely resort to exaggeration and invention in their impact statements when applying for grants ("Academics 'regularly lie to get research grants'", News, 9 March). And, as Mark Reed warned in these pages recently, stakeholders are becoming increasingly frustrated by academics' cynical motives and superficial forms of engagement ("The impact agenda is starting to fail those it was meant to benefit", Opinion, 6 May).

In our view, the solution is to rethink what impact is so that it better serves the needs of society and academia by becoming the shared responsibility of both parties, not of academics alone.

In debates on impact, the point is often made that research is inherently uncertain, with the corollary that demands for impact can only lead to conservatism in choice of research topic. Less often articulated is the equally important point that the impact agenda is part of a wider move among research funders away from blue-sky research and towards a more call-oriented approach. This means that academics can no longer choose to pursue the research they regard as most useful to society, and that they may have to waste time and energy negotiating predefined impact expectations from funders that are unclear or unrealistic.

This brings us to the heart of the matter. Academics do not reject impact - on the contrary - but they often feel unhappy with how it is defined. The solution requires renegotiating that definition through dialogue between universities, funding bodies and society at large.

Such a dialogue is now perfectly possible. Increased access to higher education since the 1950s has meant that more people than ever have been trained to read, analyse, critique and conduct research. …

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