Friday, 4 July 2014

Doing impact

So, I’ve spent the last week at the European Network for Housing Research conference hosted by my former employers, Heriot-Watt University, at Edinburgh University. There’s loads I could blog about, but I want to focus on the final plenary that ended up focusing on the policy impact of housing research. The plenary was by Duncan MacLennan of Saint Andrews, with Ian Winter as the respondent.

To summarise Duncan’s plenary somewhat radically, he basically argued that housing policy is in a mess as we are a world of rentiers as homeowners in Thomas Piketty’s world of growing inequality. There are inherent dangers that this will reduce economic productivity and growth and there’s big questions of inequality that won’t be challenged. He ended by suggesting that the esoteric nature of housing research meant it was not talking to these big housing policy debates and that it needed to be more embedded in policy-making.
This final point was what Ian Winter focused on in his response and was focused on in the discussion afterwards. The debate frustrated me greatly because it broadly had a simplistic view of universities, knowledge, policy and policy-makers. To try and order this blog post I’ll take my points in turn and see where the argument goes.

Doing impact

Duncan MacLennan criticised the “RCUK” view of doing impact as being comedic – the idea that you would publish a journal article, some policy maker would read it, and then contact you and do exactly what you suggested. I agree wholly that this is naïve and comedic, but it’s also the view of HEFCE, not of RCUK, who’s Pathways to Impact framework is more nuanced, and even more nuanced in practice.

However, I also find his call for us to engage with policy makers, and invite policy makers to conferences, similarly naïve. At its most basic level it ignores the fact that because attending academic conferences is not part of the day job for most policy makers, therefore they are very unlikely to have the time to attend a conference for four days (tellingly I saw a civil servant I knew fighting the emails in her inbox on her BlackBerry at every possibly opportunity). Academics get paid to do this stuff, civil servants don’t. They probably should; but at the moment they don’t.

Similarly, it presumes every researcher is an experienced policy entrepreneur like Duncan is, with strong links into policy-making, with a background of roles, including being employed by governments, who has had the time to develop these networks. Not everyone has had the time, the ability, or inclination to be this sort of policy entrepreneur.  I’d quite like to be this sort of policy entrepreneur, but I’m only three years into my career and have to do things like teaching which prevent me from attending things where I might be able to forge these networks and this embeddedness. It might also be easier for a white middle-aged, middle class man to forge these networks than for a woman, a disabled person or an ethnic minority individual. We don’t talk about this in impact enough.

Let’s not do impact

Unsurprisingly the “impact is research council rubbish that stifles academic freedom” debate came up in the questions after. Before I say what I say, I need to make clear, I do believe there is a role for blue skies research. But… The moment the question was raised I read this tweet:

And I couldn’t help but make parallels – basically, in a world of shrinking research budgets, can we really get away with paying people who are already paid rather handsomely, to sit and think in their offices and have absolutely no impact on society at large? Is this really a politically viable argument especially among people who might suggest defence spending would be better spent on the NHS? Much as I value the university as an institution and research broadly, I cannot countenance this argument.

As suggested by someone else in a research project I’m involved in, it’s smacks of self-protection by a profession that’s under threat from people asking the very basic question: what is it actually that you do? This is the question of scrutiny that’s been shone on virtually every other public service since the 1970s. The lack of such scrutiny means embedded monopolies in academia, like the dominance of Oxbridge and the wider Russell Group continues, without being challenged more broadly.

Others doing impact

Ian Winter suggested we need specific organisations to broker knowledge between academics and policy-making. I can see why this idea is beguiling, but I’m not sure it’s right for a number of reasons. Firstly, in my experience of such organisations in universities they can’t cover all specialisms in the university, and all the different ways different knowledge can be translated into policy-making. In Heriot-Watt’s case, the university was a technical university that had had many successful spin-out companies, so the resources were focused on developing this. Brilliant for engineers; no use at all for me.

Also, I fear these organisations presume knowledge can be packaged up neatly for brokerage into policy-making, like any other product. Knowledge is not like this, it’s partial, it’s produced through discourse and deliberation. My worry with such brokerage services is that they would lose things in translation. This is particularly problematic when the knowledge then has to be re-translated in the policy organisation it is going into. And you also lose policy entrepreneurship as well – that knowledge can be produced through academics and policy-makers rubbing up against each other, sharing ideas and experiences.

Being realistic about impact

So, where does this leave me? What’s my view? Well, I think Pathways to Impact is not a bad thing. In my first research grant training at Heriot-Watt we were told to write our Pathways to Impact statement first. I think that’s very wise advice and I’ve followed it. Pathways to Impact makes you in the UK at the moment is likely to get you ignored at the moment, not cause policy impact.

At the moment I’m falling back on two ways academics can hope to make impact. The first is as the hyper-connected policy entrepreneur. Only some people are ever going to manage that. The second is to create moments of thoughtfulness – deliver seminars, have meetings, be in expert panels etc. In my experience, as both a policy-maker and academic, is these moments do not deliver evidenced impact. What they do offer is chance for policy makers to think differently and do exciting important stuff like, perhaps, define a policy problem differently. These events have to be on the policy-makers terms though; inviting them to academic conferences is not that answer. A point made by Ian Winter, which I joined-in in applauding, is that academics need academic conferences for us to do our stuff, to do the blue skies research.

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