All things ‘Impact’

You may know that this year’s annual Research Staff conference is on the theme of ‘Impact’. It’s very easy to be cynical about impact, and some academics recoil in horror when asked to account for and measure their work in yet another way. They especially reject the idea that their research should be measured in terms of the potential income it might generate, or the ‘return’ on the funder’s inital ‘investment’ in their work. Quite rightly, some academics argue that real ‘impact’ is difficult to measure, and that it is not always eay to predict what impact a piece of work might have before one has completed it.

However, when we think about impact more broadly, it becomes clear that it is actually integral to almost all of the work that goes on at a University.  It doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable that Research Councils, who are using public money to fund research, want to ensure that people are getting ‘value for money’, whatever that means in relation to a particular piece of work or within a particular discipline. Research Councils are held accountable for the way they choose to allocate the funding that they control (and it is clear that all of the Councils receive many, many more applications than they can actually fund so it’s also important that academics whose work is not funded can see where and how the money was used). Secondly, it’s clear that Universities are also interested in their impact: how the institution contributes to the local community (through, for instance, collaborations with the museum or local schools), how academics impact on disciplinary communities (through publications, collaborations, conference papers and professional bodies), on industry or policy (through knowledge transfer, spin out companies and consultation), and on students (though effective and innovative teaching). When we think about impact, then, it seems to be central to the core work of a University (and the way that it is funded) rather than merely the latest buzzword.

The fact that impact is so pervasive in the work that Universities do, means that understanding what it means and how it is applied to academic work is key to carving out a successful career in academia, and this is the main reason that we have chosen to focus on this theme for this year’s conference. However, as I suggest above, it is not without controversy, and we hope that the conference will also provide a forum for participants to discuss some of the issues and challenges related to impact and how it is measured. For instance, a recent ‘Tomorrow’s Professor’ mail brought out the issue of impact in an academic career in relation to how tenure is awarded in the U.S – the piece was arguing for a teaching focused tenure path (something which does already exist at some Universities in the UK, Manchester included), but pointed out that “the key missing element to giving teaching and service a fair shot at equal consideration in promotions to full professor is measurement of impact, which is easier for research” (you’ll be able to read the full piece once it’s posted on the Tomorrow’s Professor Blog at: http://tomprofblog.mit.edu/ or you can sign up to the mailing list). Here, as with research, impact becomes a key indicator of success, but the potential difficulties in measuring it are explicit.

The main aims of the conference, then, are to give you some insight into why impact is important, how it is measured and how it is achieved in various facets of academic life. So, for instance, we’ll be exploring how impact will be measured in the REF, how you can maximise the impact of your research publications, how to increase your personal impact through networking and collaboration and how to carve out a teaching-focused academic career. We’ll also spend some time helping you to understand what RCUK mean by impact, what they expect to see in impact statements and how you go about preparing an impact plan (or as RCUK would have it ‘Pathway to Impact’. For more details on impact statements, ‘Pathways to Impact’ and the different types of impact that you might outline on a funding application, see   http://impacts.rcuk.ac.uk/default.htm).

We hope that giving you greater insight into what impact means in academia and how you can achieve it will help you to plan your career and understand how best to expend your time and effort, both now and into the future. If you’re not planning a career in academia, there’s still plenty for you at the conference as we’ll also be exploring how you can have impact beyond academia (through working with the media and the public) and how you can increase your personal impact (as opposed to that of your research or academic profile). More details about the conference can be found on the conference website (http://www.21centuryresearcher.manchester.ac.uk) and you can also post ideas or comments on the news and views blog you’ll find there.

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