Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Impact: the Trouble with Quantifiable Objectives

Stiffle that yawn at the back! And do stop staring out of the window, Simpkins...

Yes, it's time to turn our attention to Impact once again. This time it's prompted by the always excellent Athene Donald who wrote on her blog about the need to be more specific in your 'Pathways to Impact' attachment. It's not good enough to claim that during your project 'the applicants will also be involved in visits to local schools to give lectures on a wide variety of topics relating to…..[this grant],' but how many visits? To which schools? Better to say something more quantifiable, such as
  • 'I will talk about my work at 3 secondary schools each year during the course of the grant; or
  • I will present my work annually at the local Science Festival.'
Well, up to a point, Lord Cooper. Almost as interesting as the article itself are the comments that come afterwards. Some of these are written by scientists who make the valid point that it's difficult to pin down public engagement in such a 'SMART' way. 'Its hard to quantify the take up by schools in advance,' says Paul Crowther, and, even if you do get into the schools, the quality of interaction is not a given. 'It is quite possible for some people to go into a school, give a talk and completely baffle the children. So just counting the number of contacts is not necessarily very helpful – it’s the quality of that contact that matters,' suggests Stephen.

Fair point, counters Athene, but really the point of the quantifiable impact objectives is to demonstrate that the applicant has actually thought seriously about impact. 'When I read these statements I want to gain some conviction that the writer has actually expended a few minutes thought on them,' she says, 'and too often that isn’t the case.
'Of course we all know why. We hone the case for support, and then often are rushed to do all the other attachments and boxes on the form. We’ve all been there. Nevertheless, it is this sense of recycled waffle that is so dispiriting when reading a pile of applications in quick succession.'

Stephen Moss mentions a RAND report entitled 'Project Retrosight' that looked back on the effect that selected pieces of research have had on the wider world. 'What I kept asking myself as I read the document was, ‘how much of this could have been forecast by the applicants at the time they submitted their proposals’?' muses Stephen. 'Whatever the answer, the content did provide me with several useful ideas for the impact sections of my own recent RC grant application.'

'Maybe Pathways to Impact is just going through some teething problems,' suggests Girl, Interrupting, 'and all of this will get sorted out in the future.'

Maybe. But I won't hold my breath. In the meantime do have a read of Athene's Blog, which is always honest, open, engaging and interesting.

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