James Wilsdon is professor of research policy at University College London and executive director of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI)

As one of a vanishingly small number of academics with “research policy” in their job title, I could – perhaps fairly – be accused of having a vested interest in making the field seem more central to the beating pulse of British politics than it deserves. But for many years, whenever I found myself in conversation with wonks from other fields, I used to feel faintly apologetic for choosing to focus my energies on the funding, design and evaluation of research systems, over bigger and more pressing global and domestic challenges.

Not anymore. Thanks to Dominic Cummings’ well-publicised obsession with the inner workings of our research and innovation system (best summed up by the tagline of his Whatsapp profile: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa”), these agendas have vaulted up the political pecking order. And whereas in past general elections, it was considered positive to clock even one passing reference to science or research in a party manifesto, the Conservatives’ recent pitch to the nation included over a page of detailed commitments.

Within this list was a pledge to “reform the science funding system to cut the time wasted by scientists filling in forms.” Some immediately assumed this to be a reference to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), but BEIS quashed the suggestion that imminent changes to the REF were on the cards. In any case, we’re now so close to the conclusion of the 2021 REF that further changes at this stage would be hugely disruptive. Though I’d fully expect the issue to be reopened in 12-18 months’ time, probably with metrics back on the table, supplemented by machine learning/AI, as the techno-deterministic plat du jour. (Someone else can chair the review of that particular option!)

So on Friday, when a leaked internal email came to light from UKRI announcing – without prior warning or consultation – its plan to scrap the inclusion of separate impact sections from all grant applications, it set hares running. The government confirmed on Sunday night that UKRI would press ahead with the move as part of “a major review of research bureaucracy and methods, including unnecessary paperwork, arduous funding applications and research selection processes”.

It is tempting to see this as an early victory in Cummings’ crusade to cut bureaucracy. Following her attendance at a No. 10 science meeting back in the summer of 2019, the Oxford psychologist Dorothy Bishop noted that the “nonsense of ‘pathways to impact’ statements” was one of the topics that came up.

Talking over the weekend to a couple of well-placed sources, it seems that this is not, in fact, the case – or at least, not directly. The move to axe pathways to impact was, I’m told, already on the cards, as part of a UKRI-wide drive to streamline its processes. At the same time, both the manifesto pledge and Cummings’ personal interest in these issues, clearly created a receptive climate for the move, and an early opportunity for UKRI to demonstrate its alignment to the priorities of the new regime. It’s also helpful at a time when so much attention has been directed towards UKRI’s shiny young cousin, the “British ARPA”, which although it will have only 2-3% of UKRI’s budget has generated 90% of research-related headlines in recent months, thanks to its origins in one of Cummings’ blogposts.

I’m actually quite relieved that Cummings is not spending time, as the PM’s most senior adviser, on a detailed redesign of the JE-S grant application system. I get my kicks from this stuff – but there are surely 10,000 more important things for the government machine to be focused on right now. (And once he started on JE-S, where might Dom’s obsession end? Would he start turning up unannounced on university campuses to troubleshoot our car park problems?)

Alongside any desire for brownie points from Boris, it seems that UKRI’s intentions here are positive and well-intentioned. The requirement for separate “Pathways to Impact” and impact summary sections in all grant applications was first introduced across the research councils in 2007 (following the 2006 Warry review into ways of boosting their economic impact). But after twelve years in which describing the pathways to impact of research which wasn’t yet funded became a routine element of every proposal process, there was a growing recognition that, in the words of UKRI’s email, “the information captured does not, in the majority of cases, enable us to make better funding decisions. In light of this, ExCo [UKRI’s executive committee] has decided there is no longer a need for a separate section…”

Any efforts to lighten the burden of applying for research funding will, I’m sure, be welcomed by those of us who have to fill in these forms on a regular basis. And there’s long been a legitimate debate, both in policy circles and in the academic literature, about the value and purpose of ex-ante strategies and predictions of impact. As Will Moy, director of Full Fact, said on Friday in response to the UKRI leak: “Good decision. The impact section of applications were often worse than useless. Both written and reviewed by people whose specialism is research not impact, some were just unrecognised rubbish.”

Since the launch of UKRI in 2018, which brought the REF, with its post hoc evaluation of impacts through case studies, under the same umbrella as grant funding, it’s been unclear that both approaches needed to run in parallel. Back in 2007, the focus first on impact in grants, followed by its inclusion for the first time in REF 2014, was arguably required to achieve the kind of cultural, managerial and practical shift that the government and funders wanted to see.

These moves were met with fierce resistance from some quarters at the time. Today, impact has been broadly embraced as a legitimate and valued emphasis of research funding, cultures and systems, and all sorts of income streams, professional support and brokerage functions have developed within universities to support it. This shift has, by and large, been hugely positive for the research community, encouraging it to turn outwards, engage and better articulate its myriad contributions to civil society, public policy, business and economic priorities.

On social media over the weekend – and no doubt on campuses this morning – the greatest nervousness about UKRI’s move will be felt by those researchers, professional and support staff who have been at the forefront of this culture change. As a former director of impact in my own university, and a longstanding advocate of public engagement, I’m one of these people. There will be inevitable fears that this decision signals a downgrading of impact. And legitimate questions as to how researchers and research agendas will now be incentivised and encouraged to devote proper attention to non-academic audiences and societal needs. None of this has been made easier by the leaked nature of the news – as the UKRI email notes: “We want to tell the community about this change as soon as feasible. However, you will understand that we are not ready yet to do so.” Time to get ready fast.

These fears are understandable, but I feel it’s premature to see this as the end of the path for the impact agenda. Rather this move is a reflection of impact’s maturity and the extent to which is has now been mainstreamed within research culture and practice. This is also the clear signal sent by the increase to a 25% weighting for impact in REF 2021, by the emergence of the new Knowledge Exchange Framework at an institutional level, and by the growing emphasis on challenge and user-driven funding lines within UKRI. Alongside all of these moves, the Pathways to Impact process has increasingly felt rather surplus to requirements.

Of course, much now depends on the fine detail of how the core principles of the impact agenda that have brought us this far can be preserved and strengthened across the different parts of our research system: in a simplified but redesigned grant application process; in further emphasis on impact in whatever framework follows REF 2021; in future rounds of UKRI challenge funding; and in the newest kid on the block, B-ARPA.

The REF case studies – a fresh wave of which will be online from 2021 – are a crucial part of this mix. But there are so many diverse and diffuse forms of research impact which don’t lend themselves to the particular format – and implicit linearity – of a REF case study. All of this richness must – and I think will – continue to be incentivized, supported and rewarded – even in Dom Cummings’ brave new world. No requiem for impact just yet.

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