I’ve been quite interested in all the recent talk about the UK government’s so-called “Impact” agenda. I watched the Blue Skies Ahead? debate, commented on a few blogs and had a few discussions on Twitter. I found myself defending the Impact ideas so I thought I’d put my views together here on my blog. [I left it until now as a project proposal I wrote last July (which included a very well reviewed Impact Plan) has just been funded – I hope that this gives me a little bit of authority on this subject!]
Plans vs. Assessment
A lot of the criticism I read from scientists seemed to confuse the two separate strands of what appears to be the overall Impact agenda. Here’s a quick summary as far as I understand it:
1) The Research Councils (such as EPSRC and NERC) now require an “Impact Plan” to be written and submitted with grant applications.
2) HEFCE are planning to assess the impact of past research as part of the next systematic assessment of UK research (i.e. the REF, formerly the RAE).
In the case of NERC, to whom I have recently submitted a couple of proposals, their guidelines state that the funding decisions will still be taken on the quality of the science. The NERC Impact Plan can, in fact, be re-written after the funding decisions have been made if scientifically excellent projects have included an inadequate Impact Plan. However, my experience was that going through the process of thinking about who would be interested in the work and how I could involve them throughout the project improved the focus of the whole proposal. This is the main reason why I have been supportive of the Impact agenda despite being initially sceptical.
Ok, so parts of my research are quite applicable to, say, the Met Office or the Environment Agency so the impact is relatively easy to predict/manage. But researchers in more blue skies areas have objected to the impact plan on the grounds that the impact is not easy to predict. A classic case of this is the development of the World Wide Web from CERN – who could’ve foreseen that? Well, this sounds like a good argument but it is confusing the two strands – the plan is designed to maximise and manage the impact potential by involving the user community, it is not supposed to be a prediction of the project’s effect on national GDP…
…this later point is the justification behind the HEFCE half of the Impact agenda. This is the retrospective part and would give credit to blue skies projects that, perhaps inadvertently, had a big impact. How about this case though: after a period of decades of research, a certain field has had no quantifiable “impact”. Then why should this field continue to receive public funding? Similarly, if another field is found to be almost entirely beneficial for a certain industry, then why should that industry not fund that research? We surely need to know these things. These hypothetical cases are obviously the two extremes and funding decisions will always be in grey areas but it seems silly not to do something because it’s not easy. But the REF doesn’t only assess economic impact; it will also consider impacts on society, public policy, culture and quality of life.
A silly point
One of the other arguments against the impact agenda is that is has not been particularly well planned. Well, as an argument against writing plans for an aspect of a project, this seems a bit naff: “we won’t write plans for our impact because your plans to assess our plans are not very well planned”. Anyway, the Impact Plan seems to have been well implemented (obviously, I would say this as I got good feedback) – there is lots of guidance on the NERC website and there is a transition period where Impact Plans can be re-written. As for the REF, well this will be a retrospective assessment of impact so it doesn’t matter how it is planned as long as it is consistent. The next REF isn’t until 2013 anyway so there’s plenty of time to get the details straight.
As for my experience of the Impact Plan, I now have extra funding from the proposal to visit users, to organise workshops for academics and the user community and to develop resources for public engagement activities! I am happy.