Requiring researchers to explain how they affect the world beyond academia builds an understanding of – and support for – their endeavours, says Graeme Reid

This piece originally appeared in Research Fortnight

In one form or another, there has been an impact agenda for hundreds of years. The Royal Observatory was established in the 17th century with the express purpose of improving navigation at sea through astronomy, the National Physical Laboratory was created more than 100 years ago “to bring scientific knowledge to bear on our everyday industrial and commercial life”, and the creation of the Medical Research Council was in response to a pressing need for research into tuberculosis. Many of the UK’s great universities were underpinned by 19th-century relationships between commerce and learning.

“There will be no research impact tomorrow unless we pursue our curiosity today.”

Today’s version of the impact agenda emerged about 10 years ago. The 2004 government spending review was accompanied by the widely applauded 10-year framework for investment in science and innovation. Some of the applause could be put down to funding increases, but the long-term commitment and sense of vision were just as well received. Part of that vision was the “contribution [of science and innovation] to economic growth and public services, and funding arrangements of a research system capable of delivering this”.

Two years later, Peter Warry, then chairman of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, delivered his report on raising the economic impact of the research councils at the same time as the government announced plans to replace the Research Assessment Exercise with a metrics-based Research Excellence Framework. An explicit impact component for the REF followed soon after, as did a realisation that metrics were not then sufficiently mature to support a national appraisal of research performance.

That all seems a long time ago. Since then, many hours have been spent writing impact case studies and a few more have been spent attacking the agenda. Some fears about impact have faded while others remain, not least those about unintended consequences. 

Countless economic analyses and case studies of impact have been published by universities, mission groups, professional institutions and academies. The National Centre for Universities and Business has been created. No stone has been left unturned in the search for evidence of impact. The science and research budget has held firm during the longest and deepest economic recession for generations, while most other areas of public spending have fallen. The level of media interest in science has grown and survey evidence demonstrates that public support for science and research is getting stronger.

Scientists, researchers and funding bodies are coming to terms with the impact agenda, learning about its value, its dangers and its implementation. Of course, a few members of the jury are still undecided and some remain sceptical or hostile. But surely we have come far enough to recognise that the impact agenda offers more opportunities than threats. Indeed, I propose at least five things we should love about impact.

“The impact agenda reinforces the strong case for public spending on science and research.”

First, it reveals to a wider audience the fundamental role of curiosity-driven research across all disciplines. The best impact comes from the best research. Seminal research findings often predate visible signs of impact by decades, with discoveries from different disciplines and times building on one another unpredictably to create the eventual impact. There will be no research impact tomorrow unless we pursue our curiosity today. 

Second, it helps to articulate the benefits of research.  The flood of impact case studies from the REF and other sources will provide an unprecedented opportunity for academia, charities, business, government and journalists to see the consequences of past research: health and wellbeing; products and services; exhibitions and collections in museums; the ability to predict floods; an understanding of climate change; and the possibility of safeguarding the food chain. The list goes on.

Third, impact displaces the sausage-machine model of science and innovation. For a long time, we were trapped in a narrative of science leading to patents, leading to licences, leading to commercial exploitation. Excellent businesses emerge from that model, but much of what happens in the world is so much more subtle and unpredictable. The impact agenda helps to paint a more representative picture of the relationship between the frontiers of knowledge and the benefits to society and the economy. 

Fourth, emphasis on impact combines with the UK’s outstanding record of research excellence to promote the UK as a place for global organisations to invest in science and research. There is fierce competition for this investment. Impact raises our chances of winning.

Finally, the impact agenda reinforces the strong case for public spending on science and research.

These five points add up to an argument for researchers to embrace the impact agenda. It is still young: let’s shape it in a way that works for us all.

Graeme Reid is strategic adviser to NCUB and chair of science and research policy at University College London. 

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