Curb Your Impact

Researchers are often advised to have an impact “beyond academia”. Indeed, Andrew Gunn and Michael Mintrum (2016) see the so-called “impact agenda” as focused on “university-based research that has non-academic impact, meaning it delivers some change or benefit outside the research community.” The basic idea is that the value of our universities lies in their contribution to society, for which the economy often serves as a proxy.

The EU’s 2020 target is to spend 3% of GDP on research and development, about a third of which is likely to be invested in university-based research (the rest is government and business sector R&D.) While 1% of GDP may not seem like much, it’s certainly a significant amount of money (about €150 billion) and it’s reasonable to expect a return. Indeed, Gunn and Mintrum detect “an impatience to see rapid and significant returns on the investments being made.”  This agenda can certainly be felt by researchers, whose performance is increasingly measured through indicators of societal impact. They are now acutely aware of their stakeholders outside the university and they are earnestly engaged in catching their attention. But perhaps the impatience that Gunn and Mintrum detect in all this activity should give us pause.

Consider another target in the Europe 2020 strategy: 40% of people aged 30–34 are to have completed higher education. Already today, about  25% of 20-29-year-olds are enrolled in university in most EU countries, so this target (which is already close to being reached) is entirely realistic. In any case, a few percentage points either way won’t affect the point I’m going to try to make. With such a high percentage of the population being either the product of higher education or in the process of getting such an education, it seems odd to get the people (researchers, faculty) who are spending a mere 1% of GDP to invest a great deal of their time (a portion of that economic activity) thinking about how their research makes a contribution “beyond academia”.  If the  researchers confined their efforts to their peers and students, their impact would by no means be insignificant.

With the passage of time this impact would spread throughout the population as the students graduate and begin to apply the skills, facts and theories they have learned. While this will be slower than the impact a piece of research might have by directly shaping government polices and corporate strategies, it will be deeper and more lasting. This is especially true when we consider that the 40% of thirty-somethings who have completed higher education will presumably have a disproportionate impact on GDP (i.e., as a group they will contribute more than 40% of their cohort’s GDP-contribution). Finally, by letting students round off their understanding of the theories in “the school of hard knocks” before they are implemented at the policy level some of the worst excesses of Ivory Tower thinking can be avoided.

Imagine for a moment what would happen if academics came to measure themselves only by the external performance indicators stipulated by the “impact agenda”. (Perhaps we could add to this an interest mainly in student evaluations as regards their teaching.) Suppose it was a matter of complete indifference to them what the students actually learned (so long as they were “satisfied” while at university) and what happened to the society and economy in the long run (so long as they were feted by bureaucrats and entrepreneurs.) In the short term, it is possible that high-quality research would inform well-crafted policy initiatives. But, after a time, researchers will learn (for they are not stupid) how to game the system to maximize their immediate, apparent impact. Mediocre but shiny ideas will crowd out the ideas that might actually work in practice. Many mistakes will be made. Meanwhile, since the minds of the students have been mostly neglected, the next generation of researchers won’t be up to the task of delivering what the best minds of the last generation were capable of. The race to the bottom will be on.

To avoid this, I would recommend evaluating academic research by measuring the value of higher education according to its long term impact on the economy and society, not the immediate measurable effects of discrete pieces of research on the policy process. I think the short-term indicators (student satisfaction, policy impact) are ultimately distractions, and we might find that academia is performing well by them but driving the culture into the ground. If researchers think the most important audiences are outside their own disciplines and classrooms, they will stop giving their best thinking to their students and colleagues, waiting instead for them to occupy some position of power wherefrom they can commission a policy paper. Education becomes merely a way of conditioning students to draw on “academic” expertise when they get out into the real world. “Life -long learning” becomes a kind of conditioned dependence on epistemic authority. And peer review becomes the mutual appreciation society it has long been accused of being.

In short, I propose we curb our socio-economic enthusiasm, our pursuit of “impact”. Let’s direct our energy back into academia and wait for it to diffuse organically throughout society. As T.S. Eliot once said, you don’t make flowers grow by pulling on them.

Update: See also Tina Basi and Mona Sloane’s post at the LSE Impact Blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *