What on Earth is Impact? by Mike Higton

Higon, Theology, DurhamSo, at long last, the REF (Research Excellence Framework) results are out, and members of the Department have suspended their scepticism about the value of the process and the meaningfulness of the results just long enough to celebrate the outcome.

One of the areas in which we did well was ‘Research Impact’ – which, for REF purposes, is defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’ generated by some piece of research.

The definition and measurement of ‘impact’ is, however, controversial. Earlier this year, I finished a project that I had been working on with colleagues from other departments around the country, in which we set out to examine the whole idea of ‘impact’ more closely. We talked to a range of academics who work in the area of Christian doctrine, and we talked to a range of people from outside Higher Education who have sometimes collaborated with doctrine specialists, or drawn on their work. We asked each of them to tell us, What does real impact look like?

We published our findings in a report – Christian Doctrine and the Impact Agenda – which you can download from our webpage. It tells you a bit more about the kinds of impact that researchers in this area have, but it also contains a few questions about the way that processes like the REF try to measure it.

People Matter

The most striking thing about the answers we received was that specific research ‘outputs’ – books, articles, and chapters, of the kind that might be submitted to the REF – featured hardly at all. Neither did grant-funded research projects. Rather, impact happens when individual researchers and groups of researchers had become involved in institutional contexts outside the university where they were able to draw on their whole accumulated scholarly expertise, and put it to work in versatile and creative ways.

In other words, impact comes from researchers more than from research outputs or research projects.

The Centrality of Relationships

We also found that, consistently, across every example that we explored, the most important route to impact was the building of relationships. Researchers have an impact because of the relationships in which they are involved.

All sorts of factors contributed to the establishment of those relationships. The researchers’ academic reputation is certainly important, including the reputation built up through publications, conference presentations, and the like, but it
is by no means the whole picture. It is much more important that researchers be trustworthy, versatile, responsive, and willing to dedicate time, energy, and attention to working with people outside the university.

The Politics of Impact

We also found, however, that to talk about researchers becoming embedded in the relationships and processes of deliberation that shape the life of some community means talking about the distribution of power and accountability in that community.

One of the problems with some versions of the impact agenda, for instance, especially if we place the cultivation of relationships at centre stage, is that it encourages the cultivation of relationships with the powerful – with leaders, opinion-formers, and other obvious agents of change. This might mean that, even when researchers do have a significant impact on a community, the deeper effect of their engagement will be to reinforce existing power structures.

If we’re going to carry on trying to encourage research impact, therefore, we’re going to have to pay critical attention to the ways in which our models for ensuring, measuring and rewarding impact relate to the power structures of communities and institutions.

Research Impact? It’s all about people, relationships, and power.

Professor Mike Higton. Professor Higton’s post at Durham is part of the University’s Common Awards partnership with the Church of England and is responsible for academic input into the University’s validation of the Common Awards in Theology, Ministry and Mission offered by the Church in colleges and courses around the country, and for developing collaborative research projects that bring together people from the church and university sectors to discuss the future of theological education. Professor Higton currently supervises or co-supervises several PhD and DThM students at Durham, Cambridge, and Exeter Universities.  Research interests include Christian Doctrine, Christology, Postliberal Theology, Anglican Theology, and Theology of Higher Education. More Information can be found on our Contributors page and the Department’s website.

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