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Critical perspectives on impact

Celebrating your unsung impacts

In the previous issue of this magazine, we asked you to send us your unsung impacts; the sorts of stories your press office isn’t interested in and which you will never submit to any research evaluation. These are often stories you care deeply about, and many are incredibly inspiring. By allowing these stories to remain unheard, we allow our institutions to narrow and instrumentalise the public’s view of the value of research. It may not be “strategic” to tell these stories, but it is essential that we do, to celebrate the rich diversity of benefits that can arise from research.


We weren’t sure how to showcase these impacts, but it quickly became apparent that we would have to be selective about which impacts we included, as some entries were incomplete, and others appeared to be unsung for good reasons. To showcase as many as possible, this article celebrates those that met our criteria (our “shortlist”), all of which are truly inspiring. However, as we discussed different ways of recognising the unsung impacts that were submitted, the importance of celebrating these impacts became clearer, and in an attempt to further raise the profile and importance of these types of impact, we decided to turn the initiative into a prize (the winner receives £1000). We’ll reveal the winner at the end of the article, but first, here are all the impacts that were shortlisted:


  • Dr Esmee Hanna (De Montfort University): male infertility  

  • Dr Wendy Dossett (University of Chester): recovery from substance addition

  • Dr Sara MacKian (Open University): Spiritualism

  • Dr Ian Marder (Maynooth University): restorative justice


    What were the impacts and why were they unsung?


    There are many reasons why impacts may not be recognised, and the entries highlighted a wide range of these.


    Limited reach. Dr Esmee Hanna’s De Montfort University research on male infertility had unexpected benefits for the men she interviewed. Although the impact was restricted to her sample of interviewees, for each of those individuals the impact was huge. She has received emails from participants “saying that they appreciated the topic being discussed, that hearing it being talked about made them feel less alone, or that seeing that other men in the research felt the same made them feel they were not the only ones going through this”.


    Dr Wendy Dossett from the University of Chester also struggled with limited reach. She is a religious studies scholar studying how people with substance addictions engage with recovery programmes that include the concept of a “higher power”. Participants in The Higher Power Project reported how being invited to reflect on and talk about what “higher power” meant to them as part of the research helped to deepen their recovery, and they found reading the project findings about the higher power concepts of others reassuring. Dr Dossett said “whatever impacts my research does or doesn’t have for REF, the fact that it has helped and reassured the very people who have generously shared their stories with me means a great deal.”


    Dr Sara MacKian’s AHRC-funded research on Spiritualism at the Open University led to an exhibition in Stoke-on-Trent in which an uncanny coincidence presented itself to one of the visitors. Part of the exhibition was a recreation of a living room, with photographs dotted around the room of deceased members of the local community. The visitor first noticed that the telephone in the room was the exact same model as a 1980s telephone she had been looking at on eBay the day before, and then noticed a photograph of her grandfather as a baby, which was identical to a photo on her own mantelpiece. She walked over to the photo, touched her grandad, and her daughter took a photo. When she returned home and looked at the photo, she was surprised to see half of her hand was missing and a wavy line ran right through the centre of the picture. It seems a series of events had unfolded which any Spiritualist would naturally put down to the agency of spirit. Spiritualists suggest that the spirit often uses repetition to bring attention to its presence and such repetition could be seen to be at work in this lady’s encounter. Despite not being a Spiritualist, she interpreted the uncanny experience as a sign that her grandfather wanted to say “goodbye”, so she returned to the living room the next day to do just that.

    Top: Recreation of a living room used for Spiritualist gatherings; Middle: photo of a visitor’s grandfather; Bottom: the same photo on the visitor’s mantelpiece at home.

    Unmeasurable impacts. Sara MacKian aimed to achieve spiritual impacts through her research on Spiritualism, which she argued were impossible to measure. However, there are many more tangible impacts that are almost as difficult to evaluate. Dr Ian Marder, a legal academic from Maynooth University, founded a network with researchers, policy makers and practitioners to enable new people to research, understand and practise restorative justice. This has led to impressive numbers of people engaging with the research via social media, conferences, a podcast and policy seminars, but he has no evidence that these led to significant or far-reaching benefits for network members. He explained, “Networks like this have huge value but you can’t track the outcome of every conversation and where it leads when you put researcher and practitioners together like this.” In theory, it would be possible to study this, and had he remained in the UK he says he might have considered investing the time and energy to create a REF case study. But in common with many researchers whose impact is challenging to evaluate, he chose to focus on continuing to generate impacts rather than diverting his time and energy into evaluation.