Exactly what impact does my research have?

When it comes to making an impact there is no-one quite like Barbra
When it comes to making an impact there is no-one quite like Barbra

Earlier this week I was invited to take part in a post-graduate conference on the impact of our research.  This is all about the Government’s latest requirement that academics give some thought to the social impact of their research, so not do other academics like it, or do other academics like you, but what impact does it have in the world at large.  This sounds fair enough.  We have been accused of being stuck in our ivory towers for years and this is an attempt to see what we have to say to ‘ordinary’ people and how what we do changes their lives.  Fair enough.  There is a slight problem that previous governments have spent years tinkering with policy so that all that matters in universities is research ratings.  My promotion is entirely determined (although my university would argue) on the numerical rankings of the journals I publish in, and the really prestigious ones favour very conservative work.  But that’s my problem.  No-one said being a self-expressive child of the hippy sixties was going to be easy.  But it is difficult suddenly to stop being interested in research rankings and start to think about impact.  Like trying to turn that battleship on a sixpence really.

Anyway, I was thinking about this as I was brushing my teeth (when most of my most interesting thoughts pop up).  My work has quite a lot of interest for quilters and embroideres and I share it with a very particular community regularly.  This blog which has readers across the world, for example, ought to count, but doesn’t.  Nothing published on the web counts for anything in this regime, even though it is the medium which stands the most chance of making scholarship accessible on a mass scale.  That aside, tomorrow evening I will be talking to the Bristol Embroiderers’ Guild about my work.  I regularly go and engage with the community and disseminate the findings of my research.  But again this doesn’t count.  The groups are too small.  Impact has to be to do with large community projects and advising government ministers, maybe even contributing to the drafting of EU legislation – very large scale stuff indeed.  Again, this is fair enough.  The impact agenda is about ensuring that public funding is going to worthwhile useful work.  The problem, of course, is who decides what is worthwhile.  Is someone researching the door lintels in fourteenth-century cathedrals in a region of France worthwhile?  Yes, of course, if we believe history, culture and anthropology are important.  It’s an old argument in a new form.

But to return to my work, I have a sneaking feeling that we are in the territory of my Laura Ashley work.  The women I am slowly interviewing somehow don’t really count.  They are invisible.  They are not particularly oppressed, stigmatised, Othered, poor or excluded.  They tend to be white, middle-class(ish), middle-aged and part of a nuclear family.  And so we become transparent.  The Government-backed exercise for my discipline has a panel entirely composed of white, middle-class, middle-aged men (pale, stale males) and they very probably go home to the sort of women in my sample every night.  Why would they be interested in reading about them or thinking about their lives?

Finally, when I do my talks I ask for a donation to charity.  My favourite charity is Medecins sans Frontiers.  I support them because they are first into any disaster, the last to leave and everyday they have to make decisions that I would never ever be able to take.  So, one of the impacts of my research could be seen to be saving the lives of people none of us will ever meet.  Which is, indirectly, quite something, and most definitely impactful if it’s your life being saved.

Bit of a rant today, for which I apologise, and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own and do not, of course, reflect the official viewpoint of the University of Bristol.  But it feels better to get it off my chest!

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