We need a better understanding of ‘good’ research impacts

October 17, 2017
Paul Benneworth, Senior Researcher, Center for Higher Education Policy Studies, University of Twente, the Netherlands

My starting point is to welcome the recently published Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences report, Approaches to assessing impact in the Humanities and Social Sciences as a valuable addition to a growing policy understanding of the diversity of ways in which humanities and social sciences research (HSS) creates societal impact. It matches what has been found elsewhere by the British Academy in the UK, the AWTI in the Netherlands and the Norwegian Research Council, and reflects a nuanced understanding among policy-makers that there are no simple metric-based ways to measure HSS impact.

Those countries that have introduced assessment methods for impact have had to use relatively qualitative, descriptive approaches, such as the UK’s Impact Case Studies or the Netherlands Standard Evaluation Protocol. Both these approaches rely on stylisation and peer review to turn particular exemplary activities into scores allowing comparison between research groups. And research from within our own ENRESSH network shows that these two approaches are being adopted more widely across most research councils within Europe seeking to assess HSS impact.

But despite the widespread understanding of the diversity of ways in which HSS creates societal impact, there remains a persistent concern that HSS researchers have made little, or at least fragmented, progress in achieving societal impacts. One explanation for this phenomenon is organizational: Researchers have neither the time, the training nor the incentives to make achieving impacts a primary goal. Our own ENRESSH research (reported recently at the Eu-SPRI conference) started identifying a second general explanation: the difficulty of determining what constitutes “good” impact in research.

In particular, we focus on the question of what constitutes a benefit, who benefits from the research impact, and how closely that fits with the researchers’ own ethical frameworks. In much of the work undertaken on HSS research impact, there is a tendency to highlight case studies that are unambiguously “positive” for society. And herein lies the problem: what is positive for “society” is not fixed, unlike economic impact defined in terms of GDP, but is instead a politically defined characteristic.

At ENRESSH, for example, we found an example of a historical research group studying a country whose popular self-image as an independent nation-state was bound up with a particular conservative-nationalist political current. Challenging that historical narrative was bound up with challenging that conservative political capital, the impacts of which could be regarded as negative, unpatriotic or worse.

Likewise, urban socologists working in the field of social exclusion find their research increasingly co-opted by “resilience studies.” Resilience approaches involve equipping weaker communities to deal with difficult circumstances and turbulence and therefore carry the imprimatur of being socially positive. But from certain progressive political perspectives, the concept of resilience has become embroiled in a wider political climate in which state responsibilities for welfare are passed back to smaller groups, and therefore abandoning those more vulnerable groups to the market.

And just as no ethical medical researcher is going to develop a drug that significantly harms their patients, it is unsurprising that HSS researchers are concerned that promoting impact may lead to their research harming their research subjects or others. From my perspective, the elephant in the corner of the room for the HSS debate is this wider question of “which publics benefit in what ways from research impact?” If we do not seriously consider such questions about the assessments of public value, such assessments risk looking anecdotal, subjective, and ultimately as less convincing than more economic impact assessments that hide behind the faux objectivity of pricing.

This question clearly needs more serious consideration and resolution of the tensions arising in using research before we will really experience a qualitative improvement in the wider societal benefits created by HSS.

About this blog series: Following the publication of the Federation’s new report, “Approaches to Assessing Impacts in the Humanities and Social Sciences,” we have reached out to other members of the research community to share their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities associated with assessing scholarly impacts. It is our hope that this series of blogs and our new report will help support a productive conversation in the HSS community about the important topic of scholarly impact assessment.