Celebrating your unsung impacts

In the second issue of the Fast Track Impact 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.

Left: Recreation of a living room used for Spiritualist gatherings; Middle: photo of a visitor’s grandfather; Right 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.

Left: Dr Ian Marder discussing his work with network members; Right a speech by the Irish Minister of Justice about restorative justice at an event organised by the network.

Impacts for the “wrong” people at the “wrong” time or place. Depending on who is evaluating your impact, different people, places or time periods may or may not “count”. Some funders have quite prescriptive outcomes they hope to see from the research they invest in, and national evaluations of research have very specific criteria. For example, many academics feel the greatest impacts of their careers come through their students, but this only counts for REF if we can frame these as pedagogical impacts and (ideally) they benefit far more than just our own students.

 

Even more frustrating, and a common reason why impacts are not celebrated in the UK, is that they happened at the wrong time (usually before the current REF period) or place (for example, in a non-participating institution if the academic came from policy, industry or abroad). A less common type of impact for the “wrong person” is when research unexpectedly has significant benefits for the researcher themselves.

 

This happened to Dr Wendy Dossett during her research on recovery from addiction, because she has herself been in recovery for more than 14 years. As she explained: “My own private recovery experiences were never the focus of my research. I wanted to tell the stories of others. However, an unintended benefit of devoting much of my academic life to this research over the last five years has been to keep me curious about the recovery process, and to keep me engaged in a wider variety of recovery communities and discourses than I would otherwise have been. While I am careful to separate this from academic outcomes, hearing the stories of others has undeniably been of significant personal benefit to my own ongoing recovery.”

People taking part in the UK Recovery Walk, a national event celebrating recovery from drug and alcohol dependency as part of International Recovery Week, some of whom were interviewed for Wendy Dossett’s project

Impacts from ineligible research. Many researchers play roles as knowledge brokers, advising organisations or governments, chairing committees and leading inquiries. The impact of this work can be significant and far-reaching, but if they are doing their job correctly, then they should not be privileging their own research. The fact that they got the job means they have expertise in the area and so it is not inconceivable that they will generate impacts from their research alongside the research of others, but even in this situation it can be hard to disentangle whose work really made the difference.

Dr Ian Marder was commissioned by the Council of Europe to write a new law on restorative justice and focused on ensuring the document was evidence-based, but as an early career academic with little of his own research publicly available, most of the evidence came from other researchers. Although this is a problem for REF in the UK, as an Irish academic now, Dr Marder is encouraged to continue working with governments and criminal justice institutions across the EU to implement the law he helped develop, for the good of society, despite the fact that it isn’t based primarily on his research.

Contested underpinning research. There are some unsung impacts that should remain evaluating impact section on getting for example, where there are doubts over the rigour of the research that underpins them. Impacts based on flawed research may be damaging to society. One of the entries that was not shortlisted was for impacts based on highly contested research. The more controversial a claim, the higher the burden of proof that is required, and in this case, it was not possible to incontrovertibly prove the claims of the research. However, this entry highlights the challenges around generating impacts from contested or controversial research. Whether the grounds for objecting are scientific or moral, many researchers are trying to achieve impacts against the odds, on issues they have researched rigorously and care deeply about, but that make them unpopular with powerful vested interests. If we are convinced that we stand on firm ground with our research, then these can be among the hardest impacts to pursue, requiring tenacity and often personal sacrifice.

Confidential impacts: Confidentiality is the reason for many unsung impacts. Most commonly the evidence of impact is commercially sensitive, and despite assurances of confidentiality and redaction, companies are not prepared to share evidence that would demonstrate the impact of the research. It is often possible to get around these sorts of situations (see this blog on getting sensitive evidence of impact from companies). However, this is a bigger problem when it is a question of ethics.

 

The testimonials sent via email to Dr Esmee Hanna by infertile men she interviewed describe significant benefits to the participants, however, as these emails are between participants and the researcher, they are private (for both ethical and anonymity reasons). Wendy Dossett identifies as a person in long-term recovery, but she keeps her own story private for ethical and anonymity reasons. This is not, she says, out of shame, but because any individual recovery story is interlinked in complex ways with that of others who have not consented to engage in a research process: “In my research project I can’t offer myself the same ethical commitment to anonymity I make to my participants, so I must handle my own confidentiality and anonymity differently. I never speak about my own story beyond identifying as being in long-term recovery. For a qualitative researcher who would normally disclose a relationship to a research site, this is a complex ethical dilemma. However, protecting and benefitting the community within which my research is undertaken has to be front and centre of my research decision-making”

Be inspired

Choosing between the four shortlisted entries was challenging, but we are pleased to announce that our unsung impact award goes to Dr Wendy Dossett from the University of Chester for her work on recovery from addiction. What made Dr Dossett’s work stand out was the clear and unexpected benefits received both by herself as a person in recovery and by her participants. We found Dr Dossett’s openness about being a researcher in recovery herself inspiring.

On receiving the award, Dr Dossett said:

“I certainly don’t consider myself inspiring, nor think of my recovery as particularly a matter for pride. I’m simply grateful for it and endeavour not to be complacent about it. However, in a depersonalised sense, you’re right, recovery from addiction is in itself inspiring. Its hopelessness and shame transformed into hope and meaning. It’s sometimes said that recovery is something that occurs in the spaces between people; it is a social endeavour. Doing a qualitative research project is also inevitably a social endeavour. The lifeworlds of people in long-term recovery are not well studied or understood, and if studying them turns out to be in itself a ‘pro-recovery’ activity, then I’m pleased about that, even if that is largely unmeasurable. I’m very privileged indeed, both to be in recovery today, and to be able work academically in this area.

This award is a wonderful idea, because it pushes back against a problematic bureaucratic narrative which excludes more researchers than it includes. I didn’t realise when I responded to Fast Track Impact’s call for accounts of ‘unsung impact’ that I might win a competition. I simply wanted to affirm your idea that so many important impacts are indeed ‘unsung’. However, I’m delighted to have won. We’ll use the prize money to enable people in early recovery to help shape our own research project design going forward, and to facilitate their attendance at national conferences to contribute their experience and ideas to the wider addiction recovery research agenda.”

You don’t have to change the world; if you make one person’s life better, you have achieved impact. That one small impact can have more meaning and significance for you as a researcher than the research findings themselves, and be the thing that keeps you motivated and inspired in your job when it feels like everything else has been measured to death.

Below, the runners-up say what inspiration they draw from their unsung impacts:

“This is why I do research – to improve things, to help shine light on the things that are hidden, to give a voice to those who maybe don’t feel able to use theirs. Being able to change things for one person feels good. Every time a participant thanks me for doing the research or suggests that by helping answer the research questions they feel they are helping others, it is really gratifying and affirms what the true social value of research is about.” Dr Esmee Hanna

“Irish academic culture gave me more freedom to pursue the impacts I was passionate about. I’m a REFugee because I didn’t have enough papers to get a post in the UK at the point in the REF cycle I needed a job. Now as an Irish academic, I am free to pursue impacts in my field that are not based on my own research, as long as it benefits society.” Dr Ian Marder

“It was difficult to measure impact in any scientific or quantifiable way because the particular impact we were really keen on seeking was not materially tangible in any way – it was related to the impact of ‘living with spirit’. Yet as a research team we could see the project had huge impact for our participants in ways which were meaningful for them, regardless of how insignificant or irrelevant they may seem to external audiences. That was all the evidence of impact that we felt we needed.” Dr Sara MacKian

Acknowledgements: The concept of “unsung impacts” came from Dr Jenn Chubb. Dr Joyce Reed, Managing Director of Fast Track Impact, then had the idea to turn the concept into a prize. Judging was done by Prof. Mark Reed.

Listen to the podcast episode about this article

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Everything you need to know about the final REF2021 guidance on impact in less than a minute

August 29, 2019

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Everything you need to know about the final REF2021 guidance on impact in less than a minute

August 29, 2019

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