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Pathways to … mediocre research

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Pathways to … mediocre research

A letter signed by nine nobel laureates was published in the Times Higher Education arguing that Research Councils UK proposals for pathways to impact threatens the integrity of research and the reviewing process (with academic reviewers not competent to judge prospective economic and social impacts of research. Professor Don Braben, organiser of the letter, has called for a modest revolt against the proposals

‘Pathways to Impact’ requires all prospective applicants for Research Council Funding to specify the likely academic and economic and societal impacts of research. The latter include showing how research  will contribute to “fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic performance of the United Kingdom; increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy; enhancing the quality of life, health and creative output.”

The Economic and Social Research Council go further in setting out a template for the construction of pathways to impact. This template proposes that researchers should engage with users at all stages in the research process. These include setting SMART objectives for research: Whatever questions you plan to evaluate, make sure that you set SMART objectives: “Specific – do the objectives specify what is to be achieved? Measurable – can data be collected that will test whether the objective has been met? Achievable – is it realistic to test this objective? Can the necessary data be collected within the time and budget constraints? Relevant – are the objectives relevant to the project? Time-bound – have you set objectives that can be measured within the timeframe of the project?”

‘Pathways to Impact’ is a policy that Research Councils have elaborated in order to protect their research budgets. In return, they have accepted Government requirements that research should be directed towards short-term, utilitarian goals. The model of the research undertaking is one where it is proposed that users of research should be fully incorporated into its construction and where research is to be regarded as co-produced between researchers and users.

Whereas research of this kind is important, what is of concern is that all funded research is now being directed toward short-term ends. RCUK pays lip-service to academic impact, but this is no longer countenanced as the primary aim of the research it funds. Notwithstanding recognition that studies of knowledge transfer (such as those conducted by the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University) demonstrate that it is not a linear process and that it cannot be neatly individuated in terms of discrete pieces of research with impact, Pathways to Impact embraces a linear model that all researchers are now asked to incorporate as their research strategy. 

Professor Don Braben and his colleagues are not alarmist. The threat to research is alarming.

  1. Hi,
    I am part of the Learner-Generated Contexts Research Group and with Nigel Ecclesfield I wrote Towards an organisational Architecture of Participation published in BJET 39/3, about how post web 2.0 organisations could behave differently (more adaptively, more collaboratively) not unlike Clay Shirkey’s Here Comes Everybody. As well as that we developed the Policy Forest Framework for enabling professionals in education to FEED FORWARD policy recommendations based on their expertise. I think you should be thinking about doing this for Impact, if you think that matters. Here is a Policy Forest we made at a JISC Sustaining Innovation workshop at Stafford on Cloudworks;
    Policy Forest Blog Post
    Hope this helps

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