Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Difficulty of Impact

Definitely not David Sweeney

The LSE'Future of Impact' conference yesterday had a valedictory feel. It was the last huzzah for ‘The Impact of Social Sciences’, a HEFCE-funded project which had sought to 'develop precise methods for measuring and evaluating the impact of research in the public sphere.' 

Whilst they have achieved a lot – their blog is a fantastic forum for discussing issues relating to impact, for example – I think even their fiercest admirers would be hard pressed to say they had succeeded in this.

That’s not necessary their fault. Rather, it's the inevitable consquence of grapling with the amorphous, shape-shifting beast that is impact. This was particularly apparent in the third session yesterday, ‘Next Steps in Assessing Impact,’ which saw the three speakers almost come to blows over what impact is, who wants it, why, and how fast. This was partly down to the ever-entertaining David Sweeney, the architect of the REF. Like an embarrassing uncle at a wedding, he can always be relied upon to speak his mind. Loudly.

He took issue with the previous speaker, Julia Lane, who had been talking about StarMetrics. I’ve spoken about this before on this blog. To me, it sounds like an eminently sensible system (although I don’t think she did it justice here); Sweeney, however, begged to differ. Not only did he think that academia should not snap to attention when governments ask for data, but he implied that the system was only partially successful at collecting the right information. 

Similarly, he turned on the third speaker, Cameron Neylon. Neylon had suggested that Twitter could be used to monitor and engage with users of academic research. He gave an example of South African research which had been retweeted by someone working in community health promotion. ‘That’s not impact’, said Sweeney, dismissively.

And therein lies the problem. Here were three eminent speakers working at the coal face of impact. And yet, between them, they couldn’t reach agreement on what constituted impact, or why we should be doing it. If they have problems defining impact, what hope is there for the rest of us?  

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