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Research with impact: Academic perspectives from the UK and Australia

Policy Analysis
Qualitative
Education
Jennifer Chubb
University of York
Jennifer Chubb
University of York
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Abstract

This presentation will discuss the preliminary findings of a PhD study exploring researchers’ perceptions towards an ‘impact agenda’ where academics must articulate and demonstrate the economic or social benefit of their research. Drawing on 50 interviews with a broad demographic of researchers working across the disciplines from two research intensive universities, (one in the UK and another in Australia), this presentation will reveal the practical, political and philosophical implications which emerged. The research highlights the ‘cultures’ of impact with respect to the disciplinary differences and similarities observed (Snow, 2012), and variations existing across gender and national context. This qualitative study focuses on the impact agenda in higher education: the increased expectation that academic research should yield demonstrable real world impact. Such an agenda has generated debate in the UK (Ladyman, 2009; Watermeyer, 2014) and in Australia where a similar “chorus of opposition” is observed (Cuthill et al., 2013, Bexley et al, 2011). Here, impact is seen to inhibit and even impair the possibility of academic freedom and autonomy where a systemic focus on academic performativity as an expression of accountability is overvalued (Braben et al., 2009). The research has characteristics of a case study research approach, using grounded theory and thematic analysis. Early stage analysis suggests that there are three key strands emerging from the research; those relating to policy matters, personal and practical issues and issues of a more philosophical nature. From the perspective of policy, early analysis suggests that the impact agenda may unduly influence research agendas; resulting in increased game-playing among academics in seeking to attract funds. Participants report a fear for the ‘knowledge economy’, where a researcher’s voluntary sense of societal duty can be seen to be corroded by a system driven compulsion to create impacts as defined by stakeholders. On a practical level, findings indicate that participants continue to perceive a lack of time, skill, reward and esteem in impact generating activities. Indications are however that the UK REF and equivalent structures in Australia (most notably moves towards the inclusion of impact statements in ARC applications) are in some ways compelling academics towards impact. Researchers are interested in research as a ‘social good’ driven by an imperative of what ‘ought to be done’, not by that which is extrinsically compelled. Here, the very etymology of the word impact is seen is problematic, creating anxiety and in some cases confusion for researchers as they grapple with what many describe as ‘nebulous’ terms and definitions. Philosophically, the value systems or motivations of individuals within the community appear somewhat at odds with an instrumentalised view of research, which raise concerns for research integrity and point to a potential corrosion of epistemic values. Notions of academic freedom, duty and accountability appear in many cases at odds with an impact agenda which may signal implications for good academic practice.