A day with politicians and those who try to lobby and influence them might not sound like your idea of fun, but yesterday I spent an illuminating day at the Royal Society of Edinburgh trying to improve my understanding of the most effective ways to engage with policy makers and learning from a couple of experts who done it with great success.
My motivations for attending the event are based on a number of different things – hearing about the successes of the ESRC/Scottish Government collaborations over the last 5 years; becoming personally more interested in the political processes (which my husband sees as some kind of weird mid-life crisis) and the number of times I seem to say the word “impact” in my day-to-day work.
The impact agenda in higher education research is all about broadening the significance of UK research and increasing the reach and influence of researchers. There are two key drivers pushing the agenda – the need to include a “pathways to impact” statement in research proposals to the UK Research Councils and the inclusion of impact as a measure in the future REF assessment.
This week I’ve run a couple of workshops on the impact agenda and also had lots of conversations about its implications for researchers. Before I continue, I need to make clear that I’m no longer a researcher, but I am passionate about the importance of research and the value of researchers. I see the impact agenda as an opportunity to put research and its outputs at the heart of our society, but only if it is embraced by those at the front line. There’s a danger that if we (apologies, because I’m going to say “we” throughout despite my non-researcher status) see this as something external to the research process and view it simply as the latest box to the ticked that the agenda will be determined by people who aren’t active researchers – a model for impact will be imposed on us.
I’ve already seen some worrying signs that the potential value of the impact agenda isn’t been seen. After the recent LSE conference on impact in the social sciences I read a blog from from Jack Stilgoe which expressed disappointment that the discussions at the event were still focused around high impact papers. I’ve had conversations with people who see the scientific model for impact as being about commercialisation, which immediately alienates many researchers whose work doesn’t have potential for direct economic return. The actual impact model from RCUK is far richer than these two examples, and the areas which I find most interesting are those which use research to influence and inform policy decisions and the drive to engage the public. Having recently organised a successful science festival, I feel I’m making process on the latter, so my current objective is to learn more about the dark art of politics.
A quote from Jack Stilgoe’s blog resonates with me this morning,
“Anyone who has been involved in policies that pretend to be ‘evidence-based’ know that it’s about being in the right place at the right time, talking to someone who’s prepared to listen.”
There are lots of questions thrown up by this quote – where are the right places? when is the right time? and what do you need to do to get people to be prepared to listen? Some of these questions were answered yesterday at the RSE.
But that’s another blog post…