Bridging the divide: the importance of impact

I’ve been debating with colleagues recently the importance of impact. For many in academia impact is what you achieve when you publish in a high ranking, internationally renowned, peer-reviewed journal. An academic’s publication list is after all their bread and butter, and for Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessments particularly it is important to achieve a good showing in ‘high-impact’ journals and through book contracts. For others, impact is giving a high profile keynote speech, or being interviewed by national news and media outlets on the latest crisis. For others still, impact is something best left to the think tanks. The pursuit of knowledge is what academia is all about and an impact agenda has that dangerous whiff skewing that pursuit to best meet whichever government, institution – and indeed funding body – is asking for answers. Impact, from this perspective, prioritises certain fields of research whilst demoting other less topical or more obscure fields.

For me, impact is about making a difference. It is about informing and even shaping real world experience. More explicitly, academic impact is about making a contribution to policy, and policy-making, through information, advice and the presentation of evidence-based research in a way that might prove useful to policy-makers. It is not enough that research should be published in a journal and put on a shelf; perhaps to be read by other academics, perhaps by the more ambitious policy researcher looking for answers, but more often than not barely considered. I have no desire to keep research to myself. I want the research that I undertake to mean something and for relevant findings to be presented to those who can do something with it. That is the impact I strive for. Ambitious I grant you, starry eyed perhaps, but not unattainable.

More importantly it is this level of impact that policy-makers are crying out for. Parliamentarians, civil servants, government ministers – you name it, there is not a policy-maker out there who would not welcome clearly presented quality academic research that helps them to make an informed decision. And yet a divide stands between academic and policy-making circles. Academics fail to consider the policy relevance of their research and policy-makers fail to enquire of it.

More than this, the question so regularly put forward by policy-makers in the face of new information – that of, ‘why should we care?’ – is the one that most academics don’t answer. Academic research after all speaks for itself. Yet the question of ‘why should we care’ is a necessary one; a means for policy-makers to wade through the mass of information presented to them by lobbyists, constituents or think tanks each interested in shaping policy. The question then for academics is, ‘why should we not care?’ Why should we not strive to see how our research could help inform debate; help advise officials and politicians; help to shape the discourse; and yes, help to make a difference?

We should care about presenting our research findings in a way that policy-makers can use. And it can be used. Policy-making is a messy business that needs the help of research driven by the pursuit of knowledge and not by lobbying interests, or the need to satisfy stakeholders. That is the merit and the strength of academic research to policy-makers and why the impact agenda is to be encouraged. Moreover, the impact agenda need not be something that takes away from academic research nor need it become all-consuming of the academic life. It is, if anything, a simple awareness – an awareness for every academic that their research may have policy relevance, and that the subsequent presentation of clear, focused, policy implications or recommendations could make a difference. Simple methods such as making connections with policy-makers directly, agreeing to be added to the list of expert witnesses for parliamentary committees, or through the production of well-timed briefing papers, are just some of the things that can help achieve the sort of impact we should aspire to.

Academia and policy-making are rightly different and separate spheres, but there is no reason why they should not intersect through the willingness of academics to share their research, and the openness of policy-makers to listen. Perhaps that of itself could be impact enough for me…

Megan Dee is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Globalisation and Regionalisation at the University of Warwick working on the large-scale FP7 funded project ‘Global Reordering: Evolution through European Networks’ (GR:EEN). She is currently organising an impact event for the GR:EEN project to be held in the House of Lords in October 2014. For more information please visit www.greenfp7.eu

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