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In the run up to the next round of assessment in UK Universities (the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ or REF, 2014) research is routinely being framed in terms of its ‘excellent impact’ as well as its academic value and viability. Impact is defined as the research’s ‘excellent’ contribution to national UK ‘growth, prosperity and well-being’.
To improve their chances of getting a slice from the £3billion pie of research funding available, researchers must be able to produce evidence of this ‘excellence’; completing ‘impact statements’ that show what they are doing has changed or influenced lives, with an emphasis on lives outside the world of Higher Education and with more than a nod in the direction of government policy on economic and social benefits. 20% of the value of research submissions in 2014 will be related to this kind of measureable impact.
Patti Lather, an American cultural critic situated in the field of education, connects this notion – being presented as a matter of common sense – that academic research needs to be measured on the basis of a calculation of economic and social benefit, with a ‘turn to policy’ detectable now over a number of years and closely related to ‘neoliberalism with its managerial and instrumental demands’ (Lather, Engaging Science: Policy from the side of the Messy 2010). Whether or not it is true that – aside from policy makers – people are widely demanding measurable indications of knowledge as a transferable or exchangeable product from Universities in the UK – it is clear that these Universities have also had a long and proud tradition in the past, of fostering the kind of critical impact that throws ‘common-sense’ notions – about the nature of women as inferior to men and gender more generally as irreducibly heterosexual, for example – out of the window.

At the moment, UK Universities still appear on the surface of things at least, to be relatively upbeat about ‘impact statements’. For example, Dr Nadine Lewycky, Arts Impact Officer at Warwick University said recently that many researchers are already making a real impact. She was employed at Warwick University to help academics identify new ways of building ‘impact’ into their research and in the podcast, she claims all she was really doing in many cases, was helping her academic colleagues find the right language to make existing ‘impact’ more apparent in order to bring ‘academia into the public domain’.
Reading between the lines, however, this seems strongly to suggest that academics, are being required at the same time, to bring their research into line with a particular kind of language that defines knowledge in terms of a regulated domain or economy of transfer and exchange. The knowledge that is produced by research becomes framed as something essentially to be managed, measured and marketed. Ideas that academic research could also contribute to processes of individual or communal becoming, transformation or a matter of following the dictates of human curiosity in order to reveal something previously undisclosed or unsuspected or even as a means to great pleasure and delight, are increasingly likely to be met with raised eyebrows and the accusation that we are being naïve.

Common-sense dictates after all that people want to see what they’re getting for their tax-pounds – especially in a time of economic crisis – so ‘impact statements’ are one way to achieve the necessary transparency and accountability. But common-sense – which typically denies that there is any need for further analysis – is notoriously amenable to ideological manipulation. Common-sense dictates that taxpayers demand something they can see or point to for their tax-pound, yet this may not be true, or it may not be any more true than the fact that tax-payers also belong to complex networks of diverse and interrelated factors and forces in the context of which, determining what they want or need is a messy, untidy and hugely difficult business. What about our accountability to multiplicity and difference (Lather 2010, 14) to all those things that don’t fit neatly into the impact statement grid?

The idea that there is something wrong with an ‘impact imperative’ is not simply to dismiss the attempts of the research councils, or people like Dr Lewycky, to draw attention to the many wonderful things that are done in UK universities – for example, to help those who suffer from cancer or dementia or in all kinds of synergies with the work of the arts and forms of technology. Nor am I arguing that academics ought not to concern themselves with the lives and concerns of people outside their ‘ivory towers’. Arguably, it is very important to ‘reinscribe an applied edge to’ (Lather 2010, 28) the work we do. In this sense, being encouraged to go outside the university and talk with people about what we – collectively – do, can only be a good thing. The problem is the way in which the value of what we do via these processes is then being framed.

There are different ways to understand the impact of knowledge that is cultivated in Universities. Just to take one single example, in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir, Sorbonne-trained philosopher, posed the question ‘What is a woman?’ and came up with the disturbing answer that ‘she’ was effectively a male invention. A woman was not born as such – somehow ‘essentially’ female – but became one in conformity to the philosophical assumptions that framed the whole of European society and those global contexts colonized by it. The world was normatively male and women as well as men saw themselves very largely through the fantastical lenses of powerful men, buoyed up by the assumed superiority of their culture and education. Whatever could not be conformed to this view was dismissed; women were discounted as either bad or mad. Beauvoir’s book – The Second Sex – was controversial and upset people. It was scandalous and subversive. Yet within a couple of decades, these ideas had had an enormous impact and they were being widely applied in every conceivable context, ushering in a whole new wave of feminist thinking.

Armed with Beauvoir’s ideas for example, a brilliant and passionate young woman called Mary Daly turned her gaze on the Roman Catholic Church and its theology in the 1960s and came up with her own question: Why is the Church’s role in conditioning women so rarely referred to? Her answer, contained first of all in The Church and the Second Sex (1968) followed by a series of powerful discussions in subsequent books, was that philosophical assumptions that determined women’s value and role in life were woven into the very fabric of Christianity:

If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated.
Beyond God the Father (1973,13)

Yet like Beauvoir before her, Mary Daly ruffled feathers and upset people. Though she had her books published and was frequently ‘in the news’, she upset even feminists and her attempts to teach men and women separately caused a perfect media storm.

In an article in the Guardian published on the anniversary of Beauvoir’s birth, Toril Moi tells us that The Second Sex was both a source of inspiration and insight for countless women – ‘ “It changed my life!” is a refrain one often hears’ – but it was also a stumbling block, something many people including women and even feminist women ignored or rejected.

In other words, there are different ways in which to understand ‘impact’ than one that is determined through the collection of measureable, marketable data in response to a ‘common-sense’ demand for demonstrability. Beauvoir and Daly initiated debates that have extended over decades and their ideas have not always been found acceptance. Yet it would be crass to claim that these debates have not been profoundly important, affecting our understanding of what gender is all about and whose interests it has served in ways that now saturate the policy world of ‘equalities mainstreaming’ or ‘gender awareness’. In other words, whilst the direction of ‘impact statements’ is all about what the public is getting for its money, it says nothing about the bigger issues of impact that offend or contest common sense and sensibility and in which universities have always, in the past, taken a leading role.

Standing in between the demands of government and the demands of senior academics within the academy, the research councils must have a difficult balancing act to achieve. Yet it is hard not to feel that they are too compliant with the assumptions being promoted as common sense, that value is equivalent to the manageable and the marketable and that to have impact, university research must be measurable; from numbers of cancer survivors for ever increasing lengths of time to numbers/examples of citations, hits on websites, completed feedback forms, numbers of tickets purchased, books sold, tv & radio interviews broadcast, related primary school activities organized, blog entries written ……