Rombald green texture

'Put down the prosecco, we’re not done yet'

Recentring approaches to impact post-REF21

5th October 2021

Author: Dr Anne Jolly, Dr Julie Bayley, University of Lincoln

The scene. March 2021. UK universities, and assorted research institutions, are poised to press the REF ‘submit’ button. Outputs, Environment and Impact Case Studies that have been written, rewritten and endlessly finessed over seven years are ready to take their final bow. As the deadline looms closer, institutions begin to ceremoniously declare their respective submissions on social media. The collective sigh of relief is palpable, and in a year, outcomes will be known and monies allocated. There will be winners and losers, some things will change, some things will continue unaffected. Yet, whilst institutions will each run their own post-mortems, a question hangs in the air... ‘how did we do and where do we go from here?’

Impact. Such a small word for a big and important thing. In the UK we’ve just cleared this second submission cycle of the Research Excellence Framework (2014, 2021) and have seen Research Councils move away from separated ‘Pathways to Impact’ sections in bids towards expectations of impact weaved throughout research plans. Through both routes – increased weighting between cycles and the conceptual shift towards the impact ‘part’ of the research process – impact has progressively grown and concretised into something expected both in terms of delivery and associated scale.

As we collectively clicked ‘submit’ and sipped a glass of (in some places University supplied) Prosecco, many of us felt less a sense of relief, and more a sense of exhaustion. For a hidden army of university staff, the REF process has continued since with audit requests, and there is clear momentum across many institutions – mirroring the shifted sands post 2014 – to establish the groundwork for new or bigger glory in the next assessment phase.

Whilst there remain considerable international variations in impact and more specifically impact assessment, our UK experience has foregrounded a number of reasons to be cautious about carrying on to the next cycle without really paying attention to the collateral damage on the sector. Of course we should recognise and celebrate the enormity of effort extoled to deliver the mammoth project that was REF 2021, but at the same time we need to put down the Prosecco, as we’re not done yet.

Earlier this year, we (with colleagues Dr Kieran Fenby-Hulse and Dr Chris Hewson) wrote about how the reality of creating impact for assessment is far more of an industry than a simple ‘harvest’ of naturally occurring research achievements. That – notwithstanding the extraordinary work of so many academics, research managers, non-academic partners and many more – the process itself risks diverting resources away from other university functions, drives fearfulness and can sour rather than solidify stakeholder relationships. Prior to this, responses to a blog post about the sectoral health damages of REF seemed to harness a shared pain, a sense of disenfranchisement and disengagement, in stark contrast to the ‘shiny-ness’ of the case studies which so often take centre stage. The various damage to people (burden and burnout), culture (impact as selectively unrewarded labour) and impact itself (valuing only ‘big’) has been in places so corrosive that it would be neglectful to plough on ahead without redressing it for future cycles.

We found ourselves extending this ploughing analogy further. The University of Lincoln is a proudly Civic University, built by and within the community, and operating on the principle that the walls between academia and society should be Permeable. Whilst Lincoln is active in many areas of research and practice, it has particularly strong links with agriculture, unsurprisingly given its rural location and significant farming landscape. We found ourselves drawn to five principles, five agricultural analogies, to help us to better conceptualise and thus support people within the journey from seeds to an impact ‘harvest’:

  1. Ensure healthy foundations (or ‘check your soil’). Efforts to create impact, like crops need strong foundations, rich in ways to support them to grow. For Lincoln this means embedding the principles of Institutional Impact Health
  2. Build in impact literacy (or ‘do people know how to grow the crops?’). A focus on impact, rather than people, can mask the skills and understanding needed across the institution to make impact possible. For Lincoln, this is reflected in our core principles around building impact literacy, demonstrated most significantly in the launch of the Lincoln Impact Literacy Institute, and through the co-development of Impact Literacy tools (and more recently the launch of their Impact Services) with Emerald Publishing.
  3. Determine what matters (or check you’re planting the right crops’). Assessment driven impact risks pursuing what’s countable, rather than what counts. Only by working in partnership with the wider sector (for us as a Civic and Permeable Institution) and listening to people can we determine how we can best support the world.
  4. Be an active part of your ecosystem (or ‘look out for foxes, mice and badgers’). Research is not done in a vacuum, and at any one time we’re delivering on multiple overlapping agendas (the Knowledge Exchange Concordat, REF, Sustainable Development Goals, etc) and with multiple stakeholders (funders, businesses, policy makers….). We need to not only coordinate with people who have different skill sets (foxes, mice and badgers) to help us deliver these, but also feed back into the sector about how we can do this most fairly. For Lincoln, this involves research and development with NIHR (the UKs largest health research funder) and Emerald.
  5. Remember people are involved throughout (or ‘from Farm to Fork’). This is the simplest and most fundamental principle: people are at the heart of the impact journey, forging the links throughout the ‘impact supply chain’. We need to make visible the efforts of those who support the process of impact and implementation, else risk perpetuating the invisible labour so central to the negative experiences of so many.

Impact isn’t itself an academic endeavour; by definition it’s deliverable outside that bubble, yet so routinely tasked to academics. For us to lose the potential for further collateral damage, it needs a far more ecosystem, embedded and sustainable approach, supported at all levels of the institution and recognising the myriad of people who contribute to its success. Whilst our experiences are obviously shaped by REF, they are not bound by it and the principles here resonate across impact in any context. Whatever your role, and wherever you are in the world, consider how people are centred and valued in your strategy and operations. Because as we put the prosecco down, we need to pick the people up.