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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Impact

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to see two talks on impact from two funding agencies: EPSRC (for RCUK) and HEFCE.

Sadly the first did little to inspire me with confidence, despite the efforts of the speaker.

A key thrust of the presentation was that RCUK does not want us to predict the future (no fortune telling) rather they just want us to spend some time thinking about what the potential impacts might be and how we would go about developing them. So far, so good.

Unfortunately I got the impression (as did some others I spoke to) that they did want us to try to predict the future. In fact the overall impression I took from the talk was that RCUK still doesn't really know what it wants in terms of 'impact'. This was a view shared by several at the meeting. Perhaps this is unfair but I should point out that I am not as hostile to the whole impact idea as others and so this view is not based on a prejudiced view of impact statements. Also the EPSRC rep did state that they would not hold us to the statements we produce - they expect things to evolve and change just as scientific enquiry does - a fair point but then I have to wonder about the worth of the impact statements.

The talk from HEFCE was more encouraging and was dominated by a single theme: "we don't really know how its going to work, we are going to try this in the pilot scheme and see how it goes." I found this incredibly refreshing and encouraging and I left the talk feeling optimistic that they might just get it right. Of course they have a loooong way to go and they really need to get more feedback but at least they are thinking that. I still worry that too much emphasis is going to be placed on the nebulous idea of impact and a lot will depend on their final weightings for the importance of impact in teh overall assessment.

My personal view is that considering impact is not a bad idea. I have recently filled in an impact plan for a grant application. It certainly allowed me to consider ways in which I could spread the word about the science I would do and beg for money to help do that - this is especially useful if you think of the outreach side of impact.

But I am still uneasy about the whole impact agenda, it still feels wrong, like some slowly creeping doom; the thin end of the wedge, perhaps.

I wonder whether they have got things arse about face. Surely the best time to consider potential impact is AFTER the work has been done. If a clear possibility for spin-out, or whatever, can then be identified perhaps there should be a seperate pot of money to support that development.

Here is an embryo of an idea:

If a piece of work has an excellent impact plan but fails to get funding because it was up against better blues skies research that proposal should be made available to other potential funders UK or European industry, relevant government departments, etc. If they think it is worth doing for the possible economic impact then they can fund the research to the levels requested plus develop a strategy for translating the product to the marketplace or whatever. This way we maximise obvious and immediate impact without impacting blue skies research that could yield something in the long term.

Considering the impact that your work might have is not such a bad thing but let us be very clear that this will not and never can influence whether we fund a project from a science budget that is dedicated to blue skies research. To do otherwise is madness and societal suicide.

2 comments:

Andy Russell said...

Is there some confusion here - don't the research councils (RCUK) and HEFCE want different and separate Impact assessments?

The RCs want an Impact Plan that will be included with research proposals. In this you are encouraged to plan for engagement with potential users from the very beginning of the project to maximise the impact (not to try and predict that the www would come out of CERN, which would be silly).

HEFCE want a retrospective analysis of Impact to make up 25% of the next Research Excellence Framework (ie the Research Assessment Exercise) to assess past research.

Very different things. Both seem fair enough to me.

Kav said...

They are different, I didn't describe the differences here and the differences are not relevant to what I was saying.

As I said, I don't have a problem with the impact plan, I am just not sure that RCUK really knows what it actually wants from them and what they are for. The thing is that the rep. said they don't want us to predict what we might get and then gave the distinct impression (and not just to me) that that was indeed what they wanted. Very confusing - I was actually happier with impact statements before the talk.

The devil is in the details with regard to HEFCE. How do you assess impact? What is impact? etc.