I dropped into today’s LSE impact conference. LSE have clearly made a sensible strategic move to grab the impact bull by its horns. But I came away depressed that the discussion about ‘impact’ is still trading in some pretty crappy linear models.
The 2014 Research Excellence Framework is the new Mecca to which academics must pray. It is the tool that will judge, and so inevitably shape, their work. And for the first time the judges will raise up their scorecards for impact as well as excellence. Over the last couple of years, academics have railed against policymakers’ attempts to instrumentalise their work. But the final compromise now seems to misrepresent policy as well as academic research.
Academics’ impact on the world clearly can’t be described by numbers. Hefce have therefore agree that researchers should construct case studies of impact, explaining how what they did has changed the world. But, crucially, these case studies must centre on particular papers that are judged to be world-class, according to citations, impact factors and all that.
I spent four years in a think tank and two doing policy in a national academy of sciences, where impact was the currency even if we didn’t use the term. My impression is that impact is about people, not papers. Innovation studies (some of which Alan Hughes described this morning) tell us that the economic benefit of research comes from consultancies, problem-solving and networking much more than from patents, spin-outs or breakthrough papers. And anyone who has been involved in policies that pretend to be ‘evidence-based’ know that it’s about being in the right place at the right time, talking to someone who’s prepared to listen. For academics interested in public engagement, this post tells a similar story.
My colleagues and I spent much of the last year engaged in discussions with government about the Spending Review and particularly how much money the science base should receive. We gathered armfuls of evidence and produced a nice report, but we were under no illusion that the really important policy discussions were taking place between people, not on paper (A story for another day…)
Academics and policymakers seem to be colluding in a dangerous myth that the academic paper is the valuable thing. It isn’t. It’s a signal that some interesting work has been done. Papers are easy to see and they are easy to count but people are what matter. Researchers justifiably argue that it shouldn’t be like this, that good research should speak for itself, that old boys’ networks of policy influence shouldn’t hold sway. But wishing doesn’t make it so.
Wiser academics and policymakers have privately told me that they are confident that the case study idea is broad enough to accommodate stories that reflect the realities of innovation and policymaking, rather than having to adopt a hyper-rational myth. Let’s hope so, otherwise, we are going to see a whole new world of weird in 2014.