Walking and talking research impact

It’s time for the sector to truly walk the talk on research impact.

About £400m of taxpayer funding is awarded to universities for research impact each year via REF (currently 20% of funding is for impact though that’s about to rise to 25% in REF 2021).

And yet, the sector appears to be sleeping. The exclusive early peek at Wonkfest18 of the Universities UK-Britain Thinks report (public today) shows universities and their research simply don’t resonate with the majority of the UK public.  

Only an eerily familiar 48% of those polled in May are positive towards universities, with 31% neutral, 9% negative, and 13% not sure. Although many people are proud of the sector and its strong global position, they struggle to evidence this beyond iconic Oxbridge institutions.

However, the research shows that sharing information with people about what universities do drives positive views of the sector. There is a 13 percentage point shift towards positivity when people are told more about universities and their impact on our lives. The UK’s “world-leading research” was the most effective message at driving such positivity gains, followed by universities ability to fill shortages of engineers, doctors, and scientists.

But it’s an uphill struggle. The majority of people rarely think about universities, largely finding the sector elite, remote and irrelevant to their daily lives. Only 11% are likely to advocate for universities; for example, speaking up for them in the pub if people start questioning whether going to uni is a good thing.

Over 60% feel degrees are only worth the investment to help people get a better job, and yet 58% don’t think universities equip graduates with the skills to succeed in work, and 46% feel the expense outweighs the benefits. Despite this, two thirds would encourage their children to go to university, and 55% feel graduates get better jobs (though 34% don’t).

The talk of “civic universities” clearly hasn’t cut through to many people either, with four out of ten saying they’re not aware at all of the positive local impact of their nearest university. Only 31% think they have any positive impact whatsoever. Around 11% of people strongly agree universities play a significant role supporting local businesses and employers. At the same time, many people feel universities are becoming more like profit-driven commercial businesses. It remains to be seen if KEF can help with any of this or what the civic university commission will recommend in its final report.

And for the 2,063 people polled, it’s all teaching, teaching, teaching – with universities seen as little more than big schools. There’s very little awareness of the other things universities do, the research or community engagement, for example. Few respondents thought of research as a positive benefit of universities without being prompted.

The Brexit session I chaired at Wonkfest18 illustrated how the impact of evidence is currently coming second to populism. Despite the best efforts of some present (Alistair Jarvis was the clear MVP), it was largely a depressing affair, with pessimistic tales of declining goodwill among European research partners and a packed room of people reluctant to raise their hands.

Surely now is the time for universities to walk and talk research impact.  

Walking

It’s not enough to think about impact as a box-ticking exercise only when the REF rolls back around. It needs to be living and breathing through every researcher in the sector – and beyond.

At Wonkfest, Ben Goldacre’s presentation was called ‘How do we help academics to not be pointless?’. In it, he bemoaned the idea that traditional academic publication is the answer to bad policy. He took the packed HSBC Stage audience through the advice that doctors are given around treating diabetes. He demonstrated the way randomisation at patient level can lead to larger, and cheaper, trials.

His message is clear. The onus is on scientists to focus on impact from the start of everything they do, rather than just at REF time – which means opening up to working with campaigners, lawyers, lobbyists and wider professionals who have experience of how to deliver policy and culture change (and the “dark arts” required to do it).

I’d go further and say that more research needs to directly influence people’s lives for the better, beyond the proxies of policy and practice. And I’d add wonks to that list of dark artists.

The ability to do dark arts (and to get it funded) is currently included in research council grants, but academics seem reluctant to allocate any of “their” precious research grant money for impact for non-academic partners.

And (so far) research councils have not really pushed on this, perhaps because peer review panels are full of similar academics chasing similar grants? Funders should take this a lot more seriously if the sector’s going to achieve the impact it needs to. But why wait, universities should be pushing both funders and researchers to involve other professionals. We should be costing more dark artists directly onto grants and finding funding for them from industry.

Increasing impact in this way is a huge collective challenge, way beyond the internal sector squabbles that often look petty, self-interested and out of touch to the public. Irrelevant, if you will.  

Talking

But it’s not just about doing impactful research, co-designed with the people it affects. It’s about grabbing busy people’s attention and filling their souls with wonder. Helping them to see the myriad benefits that burst forth from HE (but not assuming they’re sat waiting).

This echoes Michael Barber’s Wonkfest call for the sector to “tell people what it does” better.

Excitingly, he demonstrated his abilities with the Office for Students, sharing a presentation featuring “the shrinking circle of the modern world” that universities find themselves in the middle of, complete with the memorable Barberism “techno-exuberance”. It also includes his “agenda for the 21st century” – calling on universities to be better at telling people what they do. He said that getting across the “infectious excitement of academic life” is key to avoiding a populist backlash.

Again, I’d go further. Techno-exuberance is not something to be shrunk from, but a tool for the sector to use for the good of all. Yes, that’s smart new algorithms and robots, but it’s also universities being involved in digital literacy programmes for all ages, national campaigns that don’t just see the sector advocating for itself, ethical AI, and bleeding-edge policy ideas. And what impact do local people want and need from their universities? It’s for universities to find out, make an impact, then shout about it.  

Living doll

Although necessary, it’s too easy to just criticise the government for current ills, something the sector is often good at. What it’s less good at is putting forward credible and compelling alternatives.  

There are plans afoot apparently, with a major “Made At Uni” campaign being developed – something the sector can really throw it’s weight behind, to showcase the impact of its research. Achieving that 13 percentage point swing to the positive at a national level would put universities in a good light with 61% of the public.

But first, perhaps we need to look no further than the Wonkhe Awards for a symbol of hope, the one and only wonk of the year Anna Vignoles. She epitomises the impact of individuals such as Claire Callendar, Alison Wolf, Becky Francis and Becky Allen. These noble few move effortlessly from research impact to policy influence to sector leadership and to public engagement. But why are they so few? We need to do far, far more to understand the realities of academic careers and lives (especially the young ones), to help many more such stars to shine.

If we do all of the above then just maybe the sector will come close to satisfying the public’s soul.

3 responses to “Walking and talking research impact

  1. It was a really interesting session Louis, and I think the impact point is well made.

    But in terms of greater collaboration by researchers (opening up to working with campaigners, lawyers, lobbyists and wider professionals who have experience of how to deliver policy and culture change) When you say at the start of everything they do, doesn’t this need to wait until the hypothesis is proved? Otherwise you might fall in the wholesale experimentation failure that Ben Goldacre argues against.

    And in terms of grabbing peoples’ attention, if only academics read journals, and the tabloids have a chip on their shoulder bias about only showcasing ‘common sense’ or ‘borderline’ research results, perhaps we should look beyond the written word, and make more use of communications professionals to use image based media to get our messages across, and perhaps take a more focused approach to the type of Roadshow events highlighted by Mary Stuart in creating experiential experiences with communities.

  2. Interesting point John. I think there’s public value in using public funds to disprove hypotheses (this medicine doesn’t work, that theory is inaccurate) but it’s hardly engaging stuff to spread, unless it’s disproving a widely believed myth (some potential examples https://thebestschools.org/magazine/25-popular-science-myths-debunked/). Goldacre does more than anyone else to campaign for negative clinical trial results to be published. So maybe how “big” you go with impact depends on what you discover, but even if you discover/prove nothing, it should at least be public?

    Agree about different comms strategies, you could do some amazing visual / aural / experiential comms with research results. Writing in the Wonkhe or appearing in the podcast is just the start…

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