Comparative public law in Europe
In September I had the great pleasure of attending sessions at the first workshop for the ‘European Commonwealth?’ project, held at Essex. To speak to matters that I feel I have some experience with, I thought I would use this blog piece to address some of the anxieties about impact that were evident over the two days of the workshop.
These anxieties are not unfamiliar to me, and I have heard them raised many times in my capacity as Impact Officer and by friends and colleagues at an early stage in their career. The latter often feel particularly burdened with the demands of the UK impact agenda, and it is mainly that burden I wish to address here.
Let me begin by briefly running through those early-career impact-anxieties.
Anxiety 1 – Short termism
The impact of research outside of (and indeed within) academic circles can take years, sometimes decades to be felt. The demands of the REF, funders, and promotion applications do not sit well with this. If your department want you to feature in an impact case study for the next REF, you have at most the next four years to make friends and influence people. A truly competitive application to e.g. a Research Networking Grant from a UK research council will ideally demonstrate the potential for impact within the near future. If your institution has made impact a necessary criterion for promotion, your senior lectureship will have to wait until you start making waves.
The problem here is that many feel the pressure to make impact happen now. This a tall order, not least because it can take a very long time to create the connections outside of academe needed to make sure someone is paying attention to your work, let alone implementing it. And this pressure bites down particularly hard on early career academics, who may not even have begun to network in the right circles.
Anxiety 2 – Powerlessness
No one really has control over whether their research and recommendations are acted on. If ever a reminder of the “eventful” nature of politics were needed, Brexit has already begun to change the way academics can and cannot influence UK policy (not least academics who are not UK citizens), with government departments and parliamentary scrutiny committees across the board putting policy issues on hold while they tackle the monumental task of exit from the European Union.
The associated anxiety that I have frequently encountered is characterised by a sense that we are powerlessness outside of the University to make the impact we are expected to make. The pressures of the impact agenda can make many feel that the academic community is now expected to deliver something that is not within their power to deliver.
Anxiety 3 – Impact forecasting
If influencing others with research depends on a great deal of luck, then we will always be far from certain whether our impact plans can deliver. Yet researchers feel an increasing need to explain what their impact will be. Questions about future impact come from funders, job search committees, and our own institutions. But how do we answer these questions when our impact depends largely on luck, and may be decades away anyway?
These anxieties are not at all groundless. Nonetheless, I think they can be allayed by keeping in mind a very helpful distinction cited by one of the participants in the workshop.
When academics successfully change the world with their research, they almost invariably do so by first, disseminating their work to the right people, and second, hoping and praying that those “right people” are making significant use of that research. We might say that impact is really a two stage process of engagement followed by impact – or, to coin a phrase, making friends and, if we’re lucky, influencing people.
My contention is that our worries about short termism, powerlessness, and inability to predict impact apply legitimately to the second of these two stages, but not to the first.
To explain a bit more: the first step to research impact is almost always getting to know the right people outside of academic circles. If you want to influence healthcare, you need to meet nurses, doctors, carers, hospital administrators, etc. If you want to influence secondary school teaching, you need to meet teachers, pupils, parents, school boards etc. If you want to influence museums, you need to meet curators, archivists, public engagement officials, museum managers etc.
In every section of society there are people who are interested in what academic work can tell them. We just have to find those people.
Once we find those people, we need to gain their confidence. This is almost always achieved through a two way conversation, in which academics learn from practitioners, and vice versa. And these conversations can be initiated in all kinds of ways. Many successful examples of impact begin with researchers meeting non-academic researchers at industry or practitioner conferences. Such events can be identified simply by finding examples of other academics who have big impact success stories, and going along to something organised or attended by that academic.
Many at Essex have also been very successful with running their own workshops, conferences, symposia, and related events. These are promoted to carefully selected organisations and persons who could be interested in academic work, and often include non-academic participants who have been invited to contribute to the discussion. I have seen many academics surprised by how easy it can be to persuade those who work at the “coal-face” of a related societal issue to come along to their event.
Once we gain the confidence of these people, we can work on passing our work to them in a form that will work for them. Blog posts, policy roundtables, policy reports, short briefing papers, training sessions, instructional videos, etc. are some of the ways that an academic can present their work to a politician, a lawyer, a judge, a charity, an NGO, a school, a museum etc. This is what is sometimes called the “translation” of academic researcher for a non-academic readership or audience.
If everything goes as well as it possibly could, impact happens as a result of such things. Impact is not this activity itself.
Say you meet at a workshop the director of a research unity within a legal charity at a workshop. This person accepts your invitation to a conference you organise later in the year, and learns more about your work at that conference. You then follow this up with a policy briefing you have compiled in the course of your work, forwarding this to your new colleague in the legal charity. You have not yet made “impact”.
Impact comes if that new colleague reads your briefing, learns from the briefing something that is relevant to their job, and ideally circulates that briefing internally, perhaps citing it in a report produced by the charity themselves. If things go very well, the briefing supports one of the central campaign goals of the charity, and the charity actually achieves that goal in future thanks to the additional support your research has provided. This is what we refer to when we talk about impact.
We have then two stages in impact – making friends, and then maybe influencing them.
Do we have reason to be anxious about the first stage: the process of developing connections with non-academic colleagues?
Well, yes, insofar as this all takes hard work and a significant amount of time, which is no easy thing in the context of academic roles that are usually at their maximum capacity for hard work and time. But the three anxieties above apply much less to this process than they do to impact.
Take anxiety one: how can I make impact in the near future? The reality usually is that impact is not something we can make happen anytime soon. But there are things we can do immediately (time and workload allowing, of course) to get us on the way to impact. Do you think your work could be relevant to a working group for European Commission? Start digging around to see who is part of that working group, what events they attend, what events they organise themselves, find something that involves academics and EC civil servants, and sign up.
Or anxiety two: surely whether I make impact is out of my hands? Yes it is – but what you do to make impact possible, even likely, is within our control. The ways and means of developing non-academic colleagues who may be interested in our work are things that we have within our power.
Can we predict the success of these efforts to get to develop connection outside of universities? Not entirely. But because there is a great deal more that is within our control when we run a workshop or conference, hold a seminar series, write a blog post etc. we have a much better of chance of making plans that are not entirely dependent on social events and the whimsy of fate.
I’m not sure whether any of this will help make anyone less anxious about impact. But at the very least this should help us see that these anxieties don’t apply to everything that we do when we want to make impact with research. Researchers at any stage of their career can do things to help with this, and they can succeed in doing so. This is not to say it was easy. But then again, very little in an academic career comes easily.
Dr Matt Bennett, Essex Impact Officer
(Suggested citation: M. Bennett, “Making friends and (maybe) influencing people”, available at https://europeancommonwealth.org/2016/10/11/matt-bennett-making-friends-and-maybe-influencing-people)