The impact of impact

March 13, 2014

Professor Irene Hardill

Professor Irene Hardill, of the University of Northumbria, and Professor Jon Bannister, Manchester Metropolitan University write about the pressure to demonstrate the impact of academic research:

As higher education has become increasingly marketised and regulated, the pressure to demonstrate the impact of research has increased. It’s now reached the level where impact itself has become an object of study, most recently demonstrated by the launch of The Impact of the Social Sciences (Dunleavy et al, 2014) and a special issue of Contemporary Social Science. John Brewer’s widely cited book, The Public Value of the Social Sciences (2013), has argued for a discourse of ‘value’ rather than ‘impact’, but his argument stems from the same preoccupation: how to justify continued investment in social science research.

Few would argue for the need to be accountable for the use of public funds or for scientific research (social or otherwise) to remain relevant to wider publics. But the impact agenda has not been without criticism. In a recent blog following the Contemporary Social Science special issue on impact, David Canter argued that the path to impact may ‘challenge the ethics, independence, integrity, rigour and objectivity’ of social science research, since those who hold the purse-strings shape not only what is fundable but how it must be presented if it’s to receive the attention of policymakers. In particular he argues policymakers prefer to extrapolate from ‘good stories’ (singular events) than systematic evidence, and that the methodologies favoured – such as ‘randomised control trials’ – often have little validity. The impact of impact, he suggests, may be worse social science.

Yet in many circumstances impact should be part of the aims of social science. One example is that of social scientists working on ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change, housing inequality and human trafficking. These are problems whose definitions, causes and solutions are complex and often contested, given that they are so closely tied to public values, ideologies and vested interests.

Their complexity means they have no single correct approach and tackling them demands collaboration with natural scientists, civil society organisations, local authorities, the media, businesses, communities and others to design, undertaken, interpret and disseminate research. In other words, not only should impact be a goal of this research but part of the method. Far from threatening academic integrity or undermining objectivity, impact in this sense should be intrinsic to the process of understanding and tackling the problems faced by the communities we serve. We should not let the idea that our research should have an impact frighten us.

If the impact of social science has been limited so far, is it not a result, at least in part, of a weakness in the way we have come to generate and communicate social science? Producing research that has impact requires social scientists to understand those who will use that research and the information they need, and then to communicate that research in a way that can be easily understood. By doing this we can demonstrate more clearly the value of social science to understanding and improving our society, and by doing so we can have an important impact on the world.

Professor Jon Bannister

Professor Jon Bannister