The Impact of Impact

An interesting scholarly article appeared in the journal Studies in Higher Education in February of this year, by Jennifer Chubb and Richard Watermeyer. It investigates some aspects of the research funding system in the UK and Australia.

Give any research academic in Australia today (or the UK, or well, anywhere) a few minutes to vent about their job and you will most likely hear a tirade about grants — whether the writing of research grant applications, the application process, the chances of success, who and what tends to succeed, the pressures universities exert on researchers to obtain them, or any aspect of the related culture.

Well, come to think of it, there might be tirades against many possible things. The university universe is not short on tirades or things to tirade against.

While anyone in the academic world will be very familiar with the standard grievances — and it would take far too long to attempt to make a list — they are grievances usually only aired in private.

What is good about this article is that it uses the medium of a research article to air the views of academics, suitably anonymised, in public. The focus is on a particularly problematic aspect of the process of research funding in Australia and the UK: impact statements.

To quote the article,

In both UK and Australian funding contexts… the perceived merit of a research funding application is now linked to the capacity of the applicant to prescribe convincing (pathways to) research impacts, or more specifically, credible statements of how they will ensure economic and/or societal returns from their research… ‘Impact Statements’ … demand that academics demonstrate an awareness of their external communities and how they will benefit from the proposed research… [and] require that academics demonstrate methodological competency in engaging with their research users, showing how research will be translated and appropriated in ways that most effectively service users’ needs.

On its face, it looks like a good idea: any research asking for public money must make some attempt to justify its effect on society. And that doesn’t just look like a good idea, it is a good idea.

However, most research — including especially most important and worthy research — has zero-to-infinitesimal direct impact on society — or at least very little that can be explained in the few sentences of the word limit to create an “impact”. There are certainly areas that do have direct impact: most medical research; some (but not all) climate research; some renewable energy research; some biotechnology and nanotechnology research, and so on. But of course, that research with the most immediate direct economic or commercial impact is already funded by private capital and does not need public funding. Most research is much slower, uncertain, slowly and methodically working towards a long-term scientific or scholarly goal — with occasional surprises and breakthroughs.

But what impact statements, and the associated culture, demand are not accurate stories with all the complexity of scientific understanding, research programmes, educated guesswork and careful methodology that sensible research requires. That would take too long. Boring! We want impact. In a few words. Major impact. High velocity. Boom. That’s what we’re looking for. And that’s just not how research works.

Alas, simply saying that your research makes the world a better place by improving its store of important scientific and scholarly knowledge, and making society better because by supporting this research the society becomes the kind of society that supports this kind of research, is much too subtle for the politics of the situation to allow. Rather, the politics of the situation make the impact statement into a crude sales pitch.

Thus, we have a situation where, in the principal public statements made to support scientific and scholarly research, the predominant, sufficient and principal good reason for the public to support scientific and scholarly research is out of the question — it is inexpressible. It is also, in effectively preventing full justifications from being aired (at least where it counts), a scientific version of the censorship by concision so familiar in mainstream media.

How would, say, Euler have written an impact statement for his research into, say, analysis? The impact of theorems which gradually improve mathematical understanding, over decades and centuries, to the point where they enable breakthroughs in other sciences, engineering, or technology, is impossible to quantify. Even for those parts of Euler’s research which have had major, definite and decisive impact, like Euler’s theorem in number theory central to RSA encryption, the idea that Euler could have had any inkling of this application, over 200 years later, is laughable. Even in  1940 Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology sung the praises of number theory precisely because of its uselessness.

So, justification based on “impact” would have been an impossible task for Euler. And Euler is the most prolific mathematician of all time, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. God help any lesser mortal.

To be fair, pure mathematics is in some sense too easy a case. The very inapplicability of pure mathematics is so clear that any statement about “impact” in this context can only seriously be understood as a source of amusement. A three-year project to think hard and prove some theorems about some interesting and important field of mathematics — but which may have some practical applications, one day, but this is impossible to predict, and in all likelihood not — is so far from the average person’s concept of “impact” that we can only feel that the poor mathematician has been dragged by a faceless bureaucracy into a system designed for someone else, in some other time and place.

Or, perhaps slightly more accurately, and disturbingly, a pure mathematician made to justify their research based on “impact” is a lamb about to be fed to the lions. But thankfully, mathematicians will not be fed to the lions — or at least, not all of them — because the emperor has taken their side. A society without mathematicians produces none of the STEM-literate graduates that the emperor, capital, demands. The survival of the planet, as it turns out, also demands STEM-literate graduates, but as the perilous state of the planet so clearly attests, it is capital, not the planet, which is a much stronger determinant of social outcomes, at least under present social arrangements.

Mathematics aside, the point remains. Requiring 30-second written advertisements called “impact statements” leads to exaggeration, over-speculation, and, at best, twisting of the truth.

But don’t take if from me — it’s much more interesting to requote the senior academics at Australian/UK universities quoted in the article:

It’s virtually impossible to write one of these grants and be fully frank and honest in what it is you’re writing about. (Australia, Professor)

‘illusions’ (UK, Professor); ‘virtually meaningless’, or ‘made up stories’ (Australia, Professor) ‘…taking away from the absolute truth about what should be done’ (UK, Professor). Words such as lying, lies, stories, disguise, hoodwink, game – playing, distorting, fear, distrust, over- engineering, flower-up, bull-dust, disconnected, narrowing and the recurrence of the word ‘problem’

Would I believe it? No, would it help me get the money – yes. (UK, Professor)

I will write my proposals which will have in the middle of them all this work, yeah but on the fringes will tell some untruths about what it might do because that’s the only way it’s going to get funded and you know I’ve got a job to do, and that’s the way I’ve got to do it. It’s a shame isn’t it? (UK, Professor)

If you can find me a single academic who hasn’t had to bullshit or bluff or lie or embellish in order to get grants, then I will find you an academic who is in trouble with his [sic] Head of Department. If you don’t play the game, you don’t do well by your university. So anyone that’s so ethical that they won’t bend the rules in order to play the game is going to be in trouble, which is deplorable. (Australia, Professor)It’s about survival. It’s not sincere all the way through…that’s when it gets disheartening. It puts people on the back foot and fuels a climate of distrust. (UK, Professor)

It is impossible to predict the outcome of a scientific piece of work, and no matter what framework it is that you want to apply it will be artificial and come out with the wrong answer because if you try to predict things you are on a hiding to nothing. (UK, Professor)

The idea therefore that impact could be factored in in advance was viewed as a dumb question put in there by someone who doesn’t know what research is. I don’t know what you’re supposed to say, something like ‘I’m Columbus, I’m going to discover the West Indies?!’ (Australia, Professor)

It’s disingenuous, no scientist really begins the true process of scientific discovery with the belief it is going to follow this very smooth path to impact because he or she knows full well that that just doesn’t occur and so there’s a real problem with the impact agenda- and that is it’s not true it’s wrong – it flies in the face of scientific practice. (UK, Professor)

It’s really virtually impossible to write an (Australian Research Council) ARC grant now without lying and this is the kind of issue that they should be looking at. (Australia, Professor)

It becomes increasingly difficult – one would be very hard pressed to write a successful grant application that’s fully truthful…you’re going to get phony answers, they’re setting themselves up for lies…[they go on]…it’s absurd to expect every grant proposal to have an impact story. (Australia, Professor)

Trying to force people to tell a causal story is really tight, it’s going to restrict impact to narrow immediate stuff, rather than the big stuff, and force people to be dishonest. (UK, Professor)

They’re just playing games – I mean, I think it’s a whole load of nonsense, you’re looking for short term impact and reward so you’re playing a game…it’s over inflated stuff. (Professor, Australia)

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Written by dan

April 29th, 2016 at 12:57 pm

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