The Impact of the Impact Statement (and National Importance)
Today (24th November) there is a piece in the Times Higher Eduction by David Deply, the Chief Executive of EPSRC about the new EPSRC ‘National Importance‘ statement that now needs to be made for all research proposals. The quote that struck me was, however, on the previously introduced ‘impact statement‘. This is designed, as the name suggests, to put your work in a wider context and look at the potential impact, often away from the direct academic area. Prof Delpy says:
Similar thoughts were expressed when we asked researchers to think about “Pathways to Impact”, but feedback from our peer review panels indicates that it has not affected the level of transformative research we have funded. We expect a similar result with the introduction of national importance as a criterion.
My question is then, “what is the impact of the impact statement”? If, as Prof. Delpy says, it has actually made no real change to what is funded (you could, of course interpret his statement in different ways), then why do we have them?
Don’t get me wrong, I see absoultely no issue with consiering the impact of publicly funded research. It seems a sensible thing to do. The practical implementation of it, and the apparent weighting of the impact versus research, does sit very well with me yet. As an example, I recently submitted a ‘Small Grant’ to NERC. This is a two page proposal, including the case for support and methodology. The ‘Pathways to Impact’ statement is also two pages. And yet’s be clear, while the Pathways to Impact statements are well thought through, and a clear indication of how you want to the work to pan out, they must, by necessity, include lots of spin. And as the new ‘National Importance Statement’ wants us to look over a 10-50 year timescale for our work, this must also consist of increasing amounts of spin.
Also when the impact statements are refereed, they are often not given much consideration. The three referees who reported back on my small grant all said much the same thing: it seemed sensible and appropriate. There was little comment and criticism beyond this. Given the statement is the same length as the proposal and a lot of effort (i.e. time) goes into writing it, it really does seem a bit redundant within the peer review process. (I must also confess that as a referee for proposals I read the impact statements and tend to make a judgement call on whether it has been taken seriously or not. If it has, tick the box, if not, negative comments. I do not spend huge amounts of time on it).
I am not suggesting we do away with Pathways to Impact, but I do think that they should be more tailored to the type of proposal being considered and that the overall administrative burden of writng such grants needs to be considered. More than this however, I’d like to see a proper analysis on the ‘impact of impact statements’, and if they appear to make no difference at all, we need to think about getting rid of them. That would be the scientific way, after all.