The Impact of Impact

1 February 2010


A debate to assess the policy impact of scientific research: Participants in the CSaP's inaugural Associate Seminar on 27 January had a ringside seat as Andy Parker (Professor of High Energy Physics) went head-to-head with Dr David Sweeney (HEFCE's Director of Research, Innovation and Skills).

Also stepping into the ring were Dr Jonathan Grant (President of RAND Europe) who outlined examples of how the difficulties of assessment can be overcome and described the role of "knowledge brokers"; and Professor Bob Watson (Chief Scientific Adviser for DEFRA) who gave real instances of how basic research in Cambridge laid the foundations for vital policy work - particularly research on atmospheric chemistry and fluid dynamics which proved to be key to agreements on combating ozone depletion.

Challenged by Professor Parker's presentation of the "impact" proposal in the Research Excellence Framework as if it were a funding application (he scored it a "gamma - unfundable") Dr Sweeney responded robustly that "the real world ain't like that" and that academics must acknowledge the right of an elected government to demand accountability over the expenditure of public money.

He defended the broad definition of "impact" in the REF on the grounds that it gives the freedom for all parties to work together to define it. All speakers were equally concerned to preserve serendipity - the unforeseeable impact of basic research on issues which might not even have been identified at the time the research was commissioned - and there was also strong agreement that .the timescales over which research may impact on policy may be very long indeed (for example 25 years in the case of DNA). The international nature of both research and policy were also emphasised.

Discussion at the seminar highlighted a number of other issues. Professor Susan Owens (one of the conveners of the CSaP's Centre Interest Group on Science and Policy Studies) raised questions around whether the measurement of "demonstrable impact of research on policy" will discriminate effectively between good and bad impacts or between good and bad policy.

Excellence and impact she observed did not always go hand in hand and research could seem to have impact when it legitimised policies and decisions. Subsequent discussions within the CIG have reflected further on the non-linear ways in which scientific research influences policy and the difficulties that will be faced when it comes to having to assign grades to impact statements.

Professor Keith Richards another of the CIG's conveners noted that diverse subjects - say physics and history - will need consistent criteria underlying this process and not just for the obvious outliers of stellar international impact. The history and philosophy of science might potentially offer guidance on the impact of research but it will also expose the complex relationship between individual contributions and eventual impacts and may also sideline the unsung but often indispensable middle ground of "normal science" (in Kuhn's sense) that provides others with an eventual opportunity.

Banner image: DNA by Tom Woodward