Reclaiming the impact agenda: making impact work for you

Helen Louise Turton

When encountering the ‘impact agenda’ the ease of engagement is often dependent upon your discipline and/or the type of research being conducted. Certain forms of research don’t lend themselves to be easily compatible with the requirements of the impact agenda as it is currently defined. Given the pressures placed on academics to bring in external resources and to conduct research that has ‘impact’ academics (especially early career researchers) may then find themselves in a situation where they feel the need to morph their future research in order to meet such expectations. The parameters of the current impact agenda as it currently stands have created a situation where certain forms of research could become marginalised, devalued, and ‘unpopular’ unless we, as academics, exercise our agency and become active in defining impact.

Working in the discipline of International Relations I have experienced first-hand a number of different obstacles and challenges with regards to demonstrating the’ impact’ of my research. For instance;

1) Within IR the issues and topics that we are researching are rarely of local resonance as our research is focused on the ‘international’ level. While I believe that the ‘personal is the international, and the international is the personal’ when it comes to demonstrating the impact of my research on the local level it is difficult, for I cannot claim a causal relation to areas within the UK as demanded by the Research Excellence Framework. For example, if one is researching women’s representation in Rwandan politics it is highly unlikely that such research will “contribute to the economy, society and culture within the UK” (REF, 2012).

2) IR research is often not applicable to certain audiences such as parliamentary committees for example. For instance,  I have researched the sociology of knowledge within the discipline of IR, and the chances of presenting my work to civil servants, or being called to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee, or my being asked to speak to local government forum on this topic are largely improbable.

3) IR theory is a very large subfield within the discipline; however you are part of this prominent research community meaning that your work is theoretically inclined, it is very difficult to demonstrate your impact on a non-academic community. Even though I adopt the view that theory is praxis, theory development and theoretical research is not always evidently applicable to a policy audience and not always accessible to the public.

These obstacles and challenges present us with a danger, that the drive for impact could discourage researchers from focusing on certain issues and theory. The pressures academics are facing to demonstrate their impact could result in scholars trying to make their research fit with the impact agenda by changing the direction of their research. This fear is echoed by Dr Guy Redden, he argues that the narrowly defined criteria for research impact can result in “academics eschew[ing[ worthwhile kinds of work they are good at in order to conform”. The current emphasis on impact, and the way it is becoming locked in to employment, career progression, and grant success could lead to researchers modifying their behaviours and research in order to adapt to the demands of impact. According to Dr Peter Lawrence, the drive for impact has resulted in academics focusing more on their careers and less on understanding and theorising problems.

Do the difficulties and dangers generated mean that we should abandon the impact agenda? Whilst I remain wary and critical of broader changes within academia that the impact agenda is a product of – such as the marketization of knowledge, the corporatization of the university, and the adoption of marker-like behaviours within the academy – I don’t think we should abandon the call for impact per se but we should abandon impact as it is currently defined.

As academics we have a responsibility to share our knowledge and make it readily available and we should be encouraged to publically engage, but the way impact is currently defined is incredibly narrow and tends to orientate primarily around being policy relevant (especially within IR). Rather than making our research fit the impact agenda, we should be making the impact agenda fit with our research. We should be focusing on and thinking about what we want impact to look like. We need to be developing new forums and being more imaginative in the way we approach impact. Crucially, we need to remember that we are not passive in the process, and we should be taking more control over the impact agenda, in order to broaden its definition to prevent excluding certain forms of research. In other words we need to reclaim the impact agenda and define it in our own terms.


Helen Turton is a University Teacher in International Politics and Security Studies at the University of Sheffield. Helen is also the co-convener of the British International Studies Association working group IR as a Social Science. She is currently organising a one-day workshop titled ‘The Impact of IR as a Social Science’ and will be presenting a paper on the relationship between ‘impact’ and IR Theory at the forthcoming International Studies Association’s annual convention in Toronto, March 2014.

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]