Research Impact Canada at Congress 2019

Research Impact Canada (RIC) member, University of British Columbia, hosted the 2019 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH). On June 6, 2019 David Phipps (RIC York) participated on a panel about impact of SSH hosted by SAGE publishing. These were his opening remarks. 

Today there is an emerging global dialogue on impact with the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) held up as the gold standard.

REF is neither gold nor is it a standard. However, it is the reference system against which all other national research impact systems are assessed.

My biggest problem with the REF and the clear majority of national assessment systems (NLD, AUS, NZ, Hong Kong are established; Poland, Finland, Brazil, Norway, Spain are emerging) is they are predicated on assessing impact after it has happened. Impact doesn’t just happen at the end of a research project/program. Impact starts when the project is being planned, hopefully with the input of all stakeholders. Evaluators call this ex ante impact assessment. I call it knowledge mobilization planning and I help my researchers at York U do this at the outset of their grant applications.

You cannot divorce impact assessment from impact planning and the execution of actions throughout the research process that support impact. This is exactly the UK situation where institutions assess impacts but are only now starting to consider impact planning.

Cannot separate the “what” of impact from the “how” of impact. This is the core concept of the co-produced pathway to impact.

In Canada we have the privilege of not having a formal impact assessment system although reporting on impacts is a function of many grant funding programs. If it is a function of the grant reporting it follows that it should be part of the grant application as it is for all SSHRC grants (knowledge mobilization strategy) as well as CIHR and health charities applications (knowledge translation strategy).

York U leads RIC. The focus of RIC is on the role of the institution in supporting impact. We have many different methods of doing this, but the ultimate focus is on research engagement – connecting science (including the social and human sciences) to society. You can’t have impact beyond scholarship without engagement of a research partner, of an audience or critics, of an archive or museum, or of end users such as teachers and policy makers.

Emerald Publishing, a global scholarly publisher with roots in management science, has released their real impact manifesto claiming that citations and bibliometrics are no longer enough to describe the impacts of research. They have published tools for impact planning and institutional impact assessment both of which feature elements of stakeholder engagement. They are now turning these into on line tools.

At York, under the auspices of RIC, the KMb Unit is piloting a tool to collect the evidence of impact. This tool engages qualitative social science methods capturing interviews with academic and non-academic stakeholders. Evidence collected from documents and interviews is expressed in structured case studies.

Like KMb York and RIC members, institutions need to support researchers and their partners doing this work. Researchers and partners need to be supported with impact practitioners who can facilitate impact using evidence-based tools throughout the research process.

When thinking about reporting on the evidence of impact we need to put people at the centre of the process. Don’t reduce them to an indicator.