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The Impact agenda, and public engagement

I was at a meeting recently, going through research proposal documents, and I realised that the previous government's "impact agenda" might be having an unintended effect on public engagement:

One of the things that has happened in research in the past few years is that the government now demands that we now have to state what kind of "impact" our research will have. Now, the problem is that impact is notoriously and demonstrably unpredictable - we don't know if we're going to discover anything world-changing, until we actually try it, and even then we might not realise the impact for decades - but the previous government wanted to try and pin it down somehow.

So every proposal now (in the UK) has to have a two-page "Pathways to Impact" summary. If you're doing applied research it's pretty easy - you say things like "We're going to study the resilience of welded grommets under pressure, which means the grommet industry will produce more reliable grommets and there will be fewer grommet-related fatalities." In you're doing theoretical or basic research, in principle you still have a story to tell: you say something like "Our research will lead to a greater understanding of the number five, which is widely used in the natural sciences, industry and the financial sector. Future researchers will be able to build on these theoretical advances to develop new techniques for counting grommets or whatever."

So, in theory every research project has something they can say about this. (And they don't have to fill up the two pages, if they don't have much to say.) But that's not what happens.

Here's a very rough transcript of a conversation that went on in the meeting:

P: "Your proposal is good, Q, but there's not really anything about impact. The reviewers will have to rate you on impact so you need to say something here."

Q: "Oh blooming heck, but it's basic research, you can't really say what the impact is. I suppose I'll have to stick a schools talk in or something?"

R: "I know a couple of schools, I can arrange for you to do a talk, put that in."

Q: "Yeah OK."

Now I want to emphasise, this was not the end of the conversation. But I'm in favour of public engagement - perhaps a little more imagination is needed than just some generic schools talk, but it's interesting to see that this criterion is pushing people towards that little bit more public engagement.

Also: this is not a particularly unusual approach to filling in those impact pages. Impact is not supposed to be the tail that wags the dog, research excellence is supposed to be the number one criterion. But there are two whole pages which we have to use to say something about impact. And we know that the reviewers have got to read those pages, and rate us in terms of how strong or weak our pathways to impact are.

As I've said, impact is unpredictable. So what can you write, to make a reviewer say, "Yep, that's credible"? Your biggest impact might be to invent a whole new type of science, or to change the way we all think about the universe, but that won't happen for decades and it depends on a whole vague network of people taking your research and running with it. Can you talk about that? You could do, and that might be the truth about the likely impact of the research. But we know we'll get a bigger tick if we have something demonstrable that we can actually propose to do - even if it's not really connected with the research's biggest likely impact on society. A schools talk is a good thing to do, but is it the biggest impact your research will have on society in general? I hope not!

So, it happens quite often that people conflate public engagement with impact. A schools talk is not impact. An article in a newspaper is not impact. They might be tools that help spread research out of the university into the wider world, and they might faciliate impact, but they're not really the point of the hurdle that the government set for us.

Unfortunately, in science - unlike in politics - we formally review each others' work, and we can't hide behind wooly generalities. The strange thing is that regarding impact, the wooly generalities are the truth.

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