The measurement tail should not be wagging the impact dog

Helen Sowey, smilingHelen Sowey was Senior Research Support Officer at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, UNSW, from August 2017 to October 2018. Prior to this, she spent 20 years working as a practitioner in the health, justice, and social services sectors. Contact helen.sowey@gmail.com.

This is an edited version of a paper presented at the Australasian Research Management Society Conference, Hobart, 20 September 2018.


A pop art representation of a puppy dog, mostly in different shades of blue

‘Blue Dog’ by Romero Britto. Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell.

Australia’s Engagement and Impact Assessment encourages universities to ensure that their research is of benefit to the world beyond academia.

Or does it?

Having spent more than a year in a dedicated “engagement and impact” research support role, I am concerned to see that institutions tend to be narrowly focused on the task of showing evidence of engagement and impact, rather than thinking about what kind of impact their work might have and what kinds of engagement would allow that to happen.

This is problematic, because knowing what kind of impact is intended is a logically prior step to collecting evidence of it! If you don’t know what you are aiming for, you can hardly hope to achieve it, much less document it.

The focus on showing evidence is also problematic because it shifts attention away from creating impact, which is something grand, visionary and inspiring, towards creating only the kind of impact that is measurable – a smaller, more individualistic, and potentially less relevant endeavour. Read more of this post

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Impact sensationalism: a means to an end?

Jenn ChubbJenn Chubb is in the final stages of a PhD at the University of York examining the philosophical effects of the impact agenda in the UK and Australia.

Jenn’s background is in Philosophy and she has a particular interest in virtue ethics, academic freedom and the philosophy of science. She tweets at @jennchubb.

 

Richard WatermeyerRichard Watermeyer is a Sociologist of education specialising in critical social studies of higher education.

His research interests include higher education policy, management and governance; academic identity and practice; public engagement; impact; and neoliberalism. He tweets at @rpwatermeyer.


Photo by kazuend | unsplash.com

Photo by kazuend | unsplash.com

We recently published an article in the Journal of Studies in Higher Education titled ‘Artifice or integrity in the marketization of research impact? Investigating the moral economy of (pathways to) impact statements within research funding proposals in the UK and Australia.

Our paper reveals that the need to articulate the potential impact of research, where it is not immediately obvious, can lead academics to embellish and create stories or charades about the impact of their work. Impact projections were described as “illusions”; “virtually meaningless”, “made up stories” – that were seen as necessary in order to secure a professional advantage.

This is perhaps not entirely surprising. After all, in making a pitch for funding researchers are inherently ‘selling’ themselves or their ideas. Polishing or enhancing claims may be the default position to make sure that a proposal stands out.

However, the extent to which this is being done may signal a deeper, systemic moral dilemma concerning the integrity of competitive research funding processes. Read more of this post