A lack of in­stant im­pact isn’t fail­ure, ar­gues Matthew Flinders

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

Matthew Flinders is pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics and found­ing direc­tor of the Sir Bernard Crick Cen­tre for the Pub­lic Un­der­stand­ing of Pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Sh­effield

I re­cently told a “se­nior” pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence that I had been ap­pointed the special ad­viser to a House of Lords select com­mit­tee. “Why the hell would you want to waste your time with that?” Pro­fes­sor X re­torted [note: not their real name]. “It’s like sign­ing up to fail­ure…the gov­ern­ment will never ac­cept what the com­mit­tee says.”

This con­ver­sa­tion came back to haunt me when the gov­ern­ment did, with all but a few mi­nor con­ces­sions, re­ject the com­mit­tee’s re­port. Nine months of fren­zied re­search, more than 250 sub­mis­sions of ev­i­dence, 58 wit­nesses, two com­mit­tee vis­its plus lots of other ac­tiv­ity and the metic­u­lous craft­ing of a fi­nal re­port had re­ally failed to have much of an im­pact at all. Pro­fes­sor X was cor­rect...it re­ally had been a waste of time.

Or had it?

First, pol­i­tics is a messy busi­ness. It works through the grat­ing and grind­ing of a com­plex in­sti­tu­tional ma­chine and very of­ten pro­duces sub­op­ti­mal de­ci­sions. Pol­i­tics works through the plant­ing of seeds and the in­jec­tion of ideas and ev­i­dence into con­tested ide­o­log­i­cal ter­rain. It would be rare for any gov­ern­ment to ac­cept the rec­om­men­da­tions of a select com­mit­tee en masse.

It is far more likely that im­pact will oc­cur by stealth, with the gov­ern­ment qui­etly adopt­ing the odd idea or two with­out fan­fare, the re­port pos­si­bly help­ing to shape or in­form pol­icy well be­low the wa­ter­line of head­line gov­ern­ment busi­ness.

That is not fail­ure – it’s just how pol­i­tics works.

Sec­ond, this ex­plains why im­pact is a messy busi­ness for the so­cial sci­ences. I can prove that my re­search was rel­e­vant, I can prove that I played a role in re­la­tion to knowl­edge ex­change but I can­not claim that any of this ex­ten­sive ac­tiv­ity had a di­rect im­pact in terms of chang­ing pol­icy or pub­lic be­hav­iour.

This is the chal­lenge or risk that any so­cial sci­en­tist takes when in­vest­ing lots of time and en­ergy in im­pact ac­tiv­i­ties: the great prob­lem of sow­ing seeds in a po­lit­i­cal con­text is that you can never be ab­so­lutely sure that they will ger­mi­nate.

And even if your seeds be­gin to take root and grow, the messi­ness of pol­i­tics will in­evitably en­sure that it’s hard to prove an un­equiv­o­cal link be­tween your re­search and what hap­pens. But fuzzy im­pact is not fail­ure; it just re­flects the way in which the so­cial sci­ences feed their in­sights into an in­creas­ingly com­plex so­cial mi­lieu. Which brings me to my third and fi­nal point: there is an in­stru­men­tal­i­sa­tion of the im­pact agenda oc­cur­ring. De­ci­sions re­gard­ing the in­vest­ment of in­sti­tu­tional re­sources and the ap­point­ment of staff are in­creas­ingly taken with a keen eye not on the in­tel­lec­tual vi­brancy of the project, the dis­rup­tive schol­arly po­ten­tial of the ap­pointee but on a crude, me­chan­i­cal short-term cal­cu­la­tion as to whether the out­lay is likely to re­sult in the req­ui­site num­ber of high-qual­ity “im­pact case stud­ies”.

To un­der­stand aca­demic im­pact through bi­nary con­cepts of suc­cess or fail­ure – let alone through the lens of ex­ter­nal au­dit mech­a­nisms – risks fall­ing into a trap of our own cre­ation.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.