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Why we need smaller impacts that nobody can prove

As we grow increasingly obsessed with measuring our most significant and far-reaching impacts, we are inadvertently being encouraged to stop pursuing a range of other, equally important, impacts. Nobody would ever suggest we should we stop doing research that holds governments to account, or not bother engaging with the public. Yet there is evidence from one discipline that research that went against prevailing government ideologies was less likely to do well in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (covered in our last issue), and calls to make it easier to claim impacts from public engagement in REF2021 were largely ignored. In my recent article with Dr Jenn Chubb from the University of Sheffield (discussed in this issue), we described this phenomenon as extrinsic motivations “crowding out” intrinsic motivations for impact, but Dr Gemma Derrick (also in this issue) labels it, far more bluntly, as “grimpact”.

 

In an attempt to counter a prevailing culture that increasingly pushes people towards investing in and valuing only the most significant and far-reaching impacts, we decided to create a prize to celebrate “unsung impacts”. The entries, which you can read about in this issue, showed some of the key reasons why impacts are not being considered for submission to REF2021. For example, they may have too limited reach, they may be impossible to measure or prove, or entirely valid impacts may have been undermined by the fact that the research had been conducted at the wrong university. Unless we find ways of celebrating and inspiring others to pursue unsung impacts, we may see fewer and fewer people pursuing impacts like these. Many of the impacts you will read about in this issue are not just the right thing to do, they are deeply inspiring and motivational.

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  • Engagement and Impact Assessment was introduced as part of Excellence in Research for Australia in 2018;

  • Horizon Europe has the most advanced programme of impact evaluation that has been seen in any EU framework programme;

  • From 2019 Swedish Research Council Strategic Research Centres have to submit impact case studies for evaluation; and

  • From 2019 the Spanish National Commission on the Evaluation of Research Performance will provide monetary incentives to researchers who submit “evidence of impact and influence” of their research “on social and economic matters” as part of their six-yearly individual research performance review.

 

As impact assessments spread globally, and the UK muses over the possibility of basing REF2028 entirely on impact (see the News section in this issue), we need to think hard about how to prevent these systems from narrowing and instrumentalising what we consider to be valid impacts. We need to make sure impact assessment does not skew efforts away from the important work of holding governments to account and transforming lives, one person at a time. It is often the small impacts that nobody can prove that are the most inspiring.

Mark Reed

Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation, Newcastle University

CEO, Fast Track Impact Ltd

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