I spent the tail-end of last week in a workshop for PhD students on research impact within the creative economy , run by REACT. I was an activist before I was a researcher, so impact – in the creative economy and elsewhere – is something I care a lot about. This two-day session gave me the time, space and opportunity to think of different ways I could make an impact with my research, as well as to talk to a hugely diverse group of other PhD students and appreciate their different perspectives both in research and with regards to impact. Here are a few things that stuck with me from the workshop.
The Impact Agenda
If you’ve spent any time in or around higher education or research over the last few years, you will know that it’s all taken a rather neoliberal turn. Universities are now for most intents and purposes private institutions, and most public funding awarded for research comes with a huge emphasis on being able to demonstrate impact. With very few exceptions, “blue skies research” is out, impact is in.
Many of us are rightly mistrustful of the “impact agenda”. It affects the kinds of questions we can and can’t ask as researchers, and shifts our focus and our values to the easily monetisable. At the same time, many of us also got into research because we want to make a difference – we want to have an impact. The impact agenda can therefore be seen as an opportunity for those of us who are not content with a thesis gathering dust on a library shelf somewhere. It’s not necessarily a comfortable space to occupy politically, and there is a certain amount of playing into the neoliberal discourse involved, but as a pragmatic choice under imperfect conditions, working with the impact agenda to achieve your own ends is an ok place to be. I need that reminder once in a while.
Something that had been a worry for me personally for some time is that the kind of impact I want to have with my research isn’t necessarily a government priority, and that as a result funding for future projects may be difficult to come by. The current (and previous) government may pay lip service to issues of sexual violence but their funding and legislative choices tell a lot more about how they really feel. One of the things the workshop helped me figure out is that the impact agenda may be a strange sort of ally here. Producing high-quality research and then finding a range of routes to impact for it may help tick enough administrative boxes to qualify for funding, even if the research area itself may not be an overall priority.
The Different Kinds of Impact
The REACT workshop was focused on impact within the “creative economy”, but even just within that space, the different kinds of impact, the different routes to impact, and the huge variety of potential beneficiaries and stakeholders was striking. This was an insight furthered by the diversity of the group, which featured both practice-based and more “traditional” kinds of research in areas ranging from moving image and digital craft to public engagement and French literature. Some of us had very clear potential partners in the creative industries. Others were looking at working with charities, the private sector outside of the creative industries, make interventions in education, or even influence public policy. The skills and ways of thinking covered in the workshop would work just as well for these areas as they would for the creative economy.
One question I found useful when trying to work out what the potential impact of a particular piece of research was, was “Why are you doing it? What is your particular passion, the story that led you to doing this research?” We found that approaching the world critically (“This thing doesn’t work. This could be better.”) is the first seed of impactful research.
Another key insight for me was that your beneficiaries – the people who will get the most out of your research – are not necessarily the people with the money, or the people you can work with directly. This is where being creative about different routes to impact is hugely important. Change happens slowly, and in many different ways. Looking at the chain of things that lead to the specific piece you’re trying to change and identifying points where you can easily intervene is a useful exercise.
Some Thoughts on Collaboration
By its very nature, impact involves working with others. Your ideas, sitting in your own head or on that dusty library shelf, aren’t going to achieve much on their own. It’s only when they come into contact with other people that they become impactful. There are different ways of getting your ideas out there, and they’re useful for different things. Dissemination through academic conferences and journals will help build your reputation with your peers within the academy. Outreach and engagement exercises may draw in the general public or key stakeholders you’re trying to work with. How you talk to these different audiences needs to vary hugely to ensure you’re understood. My presentations to academic conferences sound very different to those I do to fandom audiences, which are in turn different to how I frame things when I pitch for funding, even if they all cover broadly similar content.
True collaboration, true exchange, may build on dissemination and engagement but goes well beyond both. For me, it’s also the slightly scary bit. When I’m presenting or making a sales pitch, I have quite a lot of control over my work. When truly collaborating with someone, I have to let go of a lot of that control. This is something I would like to get better at. Involving potential collaborators earlier in a project is something I’d like to try. Often I will work on something in isolation until I feel it’s ready to meet the world – but by that point I am too invested, too inflexible, and closed to input. So here’s to throwing more half-baked ideas at people.
The final thought on collaboration that stuck with me is that it is often mutually exploitative – and that’s okay. The important thing is to try to work out early on what all parties involved are getting from it – and how those benefits can be maximised during the project. And sometimes it’ll turn out that the benefit for the other party isn’t enough to keep them interested. That’s fine too – on to the next half-baked idea.
Some Final Thoughts
Two images stuck with me from the two days that I’m still processing in some ways. The first, courtesy of REACT Director Jon Dovey, is of the researcher who should be allowed to dig themselves into a “deep hole of knowledge” before emerging and being able to engage, collaborate and make a difference. There seem to me to be two sides to this. On the one hand, it is easy to get either distracted or intimidated by the impact agenda, especially as a PhD student or early career researcher. So this is a reminder that high-quality research and that elusive “new knowledge” we’re supposed to be creating is the foundation of impact – we can’t do it without that. On the other hand it’s also a reminder of the process and necessity of emerging from that deep hole. It’s something I still struggle with on occasion. There are things I know about my research area that, at this stage practically by definition, no-one else knows. Trying to develop accessible languages to talk about these things to difference audiences is part of the challenge.
The second image, courtesy of Pervasive Media Studio Producer Verity McIntosh, is that of oil and water: things that we don’t expect to mix. Verity asked us all what the “oil and water” in our own research were, and I found it to be a really useful way to articulate some of the challenges I’ve been struggling with. I found it even more useful, however, as a reminder that while making some of these elements work together is challenging, it is not impossible; and I found it useful to see how my peers were approaching their own “oil and water” moments in their practice, their research, and their path to impact.