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