Embarking on impact: why do it and what to consider

Katharine Dommett

The impact agenda has emerged as a prominent component of academic life. Over the last few years alongside the pressures of writing, teaching and administration scholars have been encouraged (if not expected) to conduct impact and public engagement activities. The origins of this agenda are manifold but derive in the main from the Research Excellence Framework which assesses academic departments on their ‘impact case studies’ and ‘environment statement’ as well as research. In an era of austerity it is being made clear to academics that high quality research is no longer enough, scholars must also demonstrate the public value of their work and the return produced on public money.

This logic has permeated the ethos not simply of evaluation but also of research grant capture. As a statement from the Research Councils UK website says:

‘The impact of a piece of research is a key determinant of its value to a university department given the difference between a 3* impact rating and a 4* impact rating can mean as much as an £80K difference in its annual income. In addition, the impact element has also been fully recognised by each member of the Research Councils UK (RCUK) so the potential impact of research is now a significant factor in assessing whether a funding bid will be successful’

In this context Universities are directing increased resources towards impact activities and training, particularly targeting ‘enthusiastic’ early career academics likely to embrace and pursue publically engaged research. Yet, in spite of these developments few opportunities have been provided for early career academics to engage in debates about the underlying questions of:

  1. Why they should engage with these activities (beyond the need to fulfil REF requirements and gain research grants) and
  2. How they can do so in the most meaningful way possible.

This assertion does not deny the ever increasing online debate about impact (not least on the LSE impact blog) but rather highlights how within departments and specifically PhD training there are few opportunities to explore these issues.

Following this logic a recent roundtable event held by the PSA post-graduate network at the University of Birmingham sought to encourage young PhD scholars to critically consider the impact agenda. The three speakers, Dr Helen Turton, Dr Katherine Tonkiss and Dr Matthew Wood, each have different research backgrounds and perspectives on the impact agenda and provided thoughtful and personal experiences of their early career engagement with impact. Each speaker presented their own account of what they thought impact was, whether they thought it was beneficial and how it could be delivered in practice.

Through critical analysis of this agenda and the sharing of personal experiences each speaker made the audience think about the virtues and vices of the impact agenda, and offered tips to help scholars make conscious choices about whether, why and how to engage with the impact agenda in the future.

In the wake of this conference our three speakers have written up their thoughts and ideas as blog posts aimed at continuing the debate and stimulating ongoing discussion about why to engage and what to consider when dealing with impact. These will be posted here over the course of the next week.


Katharine Dommett is a Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. She recently convened and chaired the workshop at the University of Birmingham entitled ‘Why Bother with Impact’. She has also written about her experiences of impact with her colleague Dr Katie Tonkiss for PSA’s Political Insight Magazine. Katharine is currently developing training for academics on how to do impact in her role as Deputy Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. For any questions contact [email protected]

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