Planning for impact with integrity

27th June 2022

Authors: Paul Ashwin & Derek Heim

Paul Ashwin & Derek Heim photo

For academics who are new to it, planning for impact can sometimes appear to demand they adopt the persona of an entrepreneurial marketeer.

It can feel necessary to proclaim that they are engaged in life-changing research that singlehandedly transforms the world, and to undertake impact planning as an act of self-aggrandisement. Unsurprisingly many academics are deeply uncomfortable with this kind of narcissistic nonsense. In this piece, we explore how to approach planning for impact in a way that maintains academic integrity and helps to support our contributions to knowledge to travel beyond the academy and make a difference to the world we inhabit.

The first step in taking this kind of approach is to recognise that, despite the rhetoric surrounding the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and UKRI’s impact agenda, thinking about the impact of particular research projects is the wrong place to start. Any research project or technology we design, just as any article or book we write, gains its meaning from its position in relation to one or more existing bodies of knowledge. It is the work of many people over many years in many countries that provides the starting point for research and allows us to make sense of the outcomes and their potential usefulness. This is explored in more detail here.

When it comes to making contributions to understanding and generating impact, we don’t just stand on the shoulders of giants but are equally supported by the backbones of many long-forgotten individuals who shaped the knowledge we use today. It is collectively assembled bodies of knowledge that enable us to change the world. This means that when we are planning for impact, rather than focusing solely on our own research projects, it makes sense to also consider how the outcomes from the bodies of knowledge, to which we contribute, can influence thinking and improve practices.

The second step is to think about how best to connect with those who might benefit from engaging with these bodies of knowledge and our contributions to them. It is important that academics do this with humility, rather than telling potential research users that they are asking the wrong questions or are insufficiently critical. The aim here is to build effective partnerships between academic and other communities with a view to co-creating impact.

A key element we can contribute to this joint endeavour is to translate the bodies of knowledge we work with every day into terms that speak to the current concerns of those who do not have the privilege of being paid to do research. Our contributions can allow us to take on the responsibility of being de facto spokespersons for a discipline or a subject area, and we can attain impact by facilitating potential research users to see how this knowledge can help them to achieve their goals. Likewise, we can and should learn from those we engage with to attain a richer understanding of the issues this knowledge can help to address and the new problems it can potentially create. Working together in this way allows the knowledge-impact nexus to be both mutually reinforcing and meaningful.

As we work in partnership, share ideas, and utilise knowledge together to bring about specific changes in the world, all involved must be responsive to each other’s needs and sensitivities.

This does not mean that academics should engage uncritically with research users but that they should recognise that a significant part of the impact agenda is educational, and that in any educational situation it is important to start by understanding how those we are working with currently understand the issues they face and consider to be important. We must plan to make accessible different translations of the implications of (our contributions to) the bodies of knowledge, artefacts, or technologies to allow others to come to an understanding of how these might be of value to them. Equally, we need to be open to new ideas and prepared to gain a nuanced understanding of the issues those we work with face and the solutions they are pursuing. As we work in partnership, share ideas, and utilise knowledge together to bring about specific changes in the world, all involved must be responsive to each other’s needs and sensitivities.

We also need to provide stakeholders and research users the space to make the knowledge, or technology, their own and recognise that we are truly successful when they take ownership of it and make use of it - possibly in ways we did not expect. This may sometimes entail uses with which we are not entirely comfortable. A key element here is to plan how best to record both these engagements and the ways in which research users draw on the knowledge to support their practices and activities. This becomes crucial evidence of the change we have supported. In this context it is also important to be aware that the knowledge we draw on, and the contexts to which this is collaboratively applied, are likely to alter over time. As such, it is useful to build reflexivity and flexibility into our plans for understanding, measuring, and recording demonstrable impact in an ever-changing environment.

This broad approach to impact planning offers a way of considering how our work contributes to changes in the world without indulging in the kind of individualistic self-celebration that might put Silicon Valley egos to shame. Rather, its central focus is on the very serious business of making our bodies of knowledge accessible, useful, and usable while simultaneously re-sensitising us to changing societal needs. This is an urgent and important task if we are to help ensure that the power of the knowledge produced by higher education is shared throughout society and contributes to the public good. It is crucial to ensure that rather than academia trying to hide away in a non-existent ivory tower, it instead recognises that it is an integral part of wider society with a responsibility for sharing its knowledge with all those who might benefit from engaging with it.

About the authors

Paul Ashwin is Professor of Higher Education at Lancaster University. He is Deputy Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, an ESRC-funded research centre involving 10 international universities. Paul’s research is focused on the educational role of higher education. His book, ‘Transforming University Education: A Manifesto’ (2020), argues for a focus on the educational, rather than economic, purposes of university degrees in order to understand their transformational impact on students and societies. He is also the lead author on Reflective Teaching in Higher Education (2015, 2020) written by an international team to support the development of research-informed university teaching.

Derek Heim is Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University. Utilising quantitative and qualitative research methods, his research focuses on social, cultural and contextual influences on substance use and health and well-being. He is Editor-in-Chief of the cross-disciplinary journal Addiction Research and Theory which is the leading outlet for research and theoretical contributions that view addictive behaviour as arising from psychological processes within the individual and the social context in which the behaviour takes place as much as from the biological effects of the psychoactive substance or activity involved.

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