07 December 2014

Science research as a cultural activity with impact

Not all researchers are averse to providing evidence of 'impact', or even to making it happen.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has done interesting work on The culture of scientific research in a project that "aimed to explore the effects of a wide range of influences on scientific research, including funding mechanisms, publishing models, career structures and governance processes”.

Surprisingly, the full report of the project give little detail of one of the subjects that evoked interesting observations in the discussion events held “in collaboration with universities around the country to facilitate debate among researchers on this topic”. That missing subject is the impact of research, in particular, the introduction of impact statements in the recent Research Excellence Framework. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) carried out REF to benchmark the quality of research and to provide “league tables” that will guide the destination of future funding for research. (Perhaps in a move to provide some light relief, HEFCE plans to issue the results from REF in the week before Christmas.)

One thing that the main Nuffield report covers only in passing is the “impact” bit of REF. The main report itself refers to “high-impact journals” but says little, if anything, on the public engagement side of impact.

The write up of the discussion meetings is more informative on the community’s view of ‘impact’. In general, the academics present, or some of them, seem to have positive views of the engagement stuff. For example, it reports that “some believed strongly that the impact agenda is having a positive influence on science and that impact has contributed to a culture within which scientists are more accountable to the public”.

I was also slightly surprised to read the statement:
“One participant said that scientists should not simply be paid to do whatever they want, echoing views expressed elsewhere that research should be justifiable to tax payers.”
I’ve been saying that for years, but many people in the research community, especially of the older generations, don't like the idea that they should so something 'meaningful' in return for the public money that keeps them off the streets.

The impact thing doesn't even have to change what scientists do. They just have to find ways of describing it in impact terms. As the write up also says:
“Another participant said that impact encouraged scientists to engage more closely with the users of research, who might be patients or professionals of different kinds.”
You just have to be smart enough to recognise that “the definition of impact used in the REF is quite flexible and can accommodate a range of different kinds of impact”. So, do what you always wanted to do, but don't keep it to yourself or bury it away in journals that mean nothing to 99.999 per cent of us.

Another participant made what, to many researchers, might seem like a revolutionary comment:
“researchers are able to exercise some control over the impact of their work, and potentially increase it, by involving research participants and research users early on in their work”.
Don't leave impact to chance, seems to be the message.
 With a whole page in the summary of the discussion events on impact, it is surprising that so little of this input found its way into the main report.

Because it fits in with something else I have been banging on about for years, I also love the observation:
“One speaker described arguing successfully for research that had concluded with a negative result being included in his institution’s impact case studies. This, he had maintained, had had a high degree of impact, in that it prevented a large amount of money being spent on further work pursuing the same line of research.”
I once tried to get a few leading lights in the scientific world to own up to their own research failures. Not a chance, was the response, suggesting that they prefer to be thought of as omniscient rather than human beings who sometimes got things wrong.

Put all of the quotes together, and they suggest a research culture that is changing to reflect the real world. It would be interesting to know how widely these views are held within the research community. Did the Nuffield Council on Bioethics find a few mavericks with heretical views? or is the community really becoming more public friendly?

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