Catherine Oliver and Phil Emmerson from the University of Birmingham share their experiences and reflections of the conference
We have spent the last couple of days at the ‘How Critical is Research Impact’ conference at the University of Glasgow, hosted by the Human Geography Research Group. We thought we’d spend some time reflecting on what happened and our thoughts and questions that have arisen over the course of the event and the days that have followed. We’ll quickly run through the content of the event, what was said by who, and then spend a moment offering some more general reflections and questions.
Kye Askins: Mapping Impact Together – alternative approaches.
Kye spoke to the tune of a different approach to impact, drawing on her research using participatory geographies and co-production of knowledges. She questioned impact in terms of the frameworks set out by RCUK and REF 2014, and the implications of this for an increasingly neoliberal university sector. The framework of her commentary was focused around an executive summary of a forthcoming wider report published by N8 Research Partnership, the University of Durham, and the ESRC, of which more details can be found at https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/beacon/MappingAlternativeImpactsummaryfinal.pdf.
Rather than detailing her talk, we have drawn out the points that had resonance with our individual research, and those which led us to formulate questions around impact. The first of these is focused around the co-production of impact between researcher and researched, rather than the donor-recipient model, which reverberated with the way we both see our research unfolding. It led to questioning of who gets to define impact, and how this can be approached in search of rebalancing power relations.
The scale of impact was also questioned, particularly through the phrase “bigger is not always better”, whereby research can be less grand and more meaningful, putting the impact into the context of the lives it may affect. It is important that impact can be considered at the small scale rather than striving to produce knowledges that have obvious extensive reach. It gives a chance to practice the famous plea of feminist geographers to ‘think global, act local’.
Hester Parr – Research Impact: Shaping Attitudes, Changing Lives
Hester spoke about her work with Police Scotland, The Scottish Institute for Policing Research, the University of Glasgow, the University of Dundee and the ESRC regarding the geographies of missing people (see www.geographiesofmissingpeople.org.uk). This is a well-known project and has received significant attention recently within the academy, including winning the ESRC Impact Prize 2015 for Outstanding impact in Society.
[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7j0YHS1nI8g&feature=youtu.be] Despite the recognition that Hester has received for this work, it was refreshing to hear that she maintained an element of critical awareness surrounding the process, and particularly the “impact agenda”. She spoke at length about the need to be self-conscious of both how we assess and present the impacts of our research, and a certain amount of care not to become too aligned with the institutions and processes we are being critical of.
Hester also spoke about the time commitments of impact-based activities and the implications that this can have upon both personal and professional life. She didn’t offer a solution to these questions, but perhaps such issues can only be considered with experience and at the level of the individual.
Hayden Lorimer – Research Impact: Working with the Creative Arts and Rolling with the New Cycle
Hayden’s commentary looks to try and bring the fun back into the discussions of impact. He spoke of his work with the arts group NVA, a Glasgow based collective who have gained creative control of a site in which they have a 20 year plan for regeneration and other arts and education based activities (http://nva.org.uk/artwork/invisible-college/).
Hayden considered how the impact agenda in his work was led by the artists and local communities involved with the reclamation of Kilmerhew/St Peters, which potentially gave a disordered “impact story”.
To counteract this, he argued it was important to brand the impact early on in the research process, which he did through setting up the ‘Invisible College’ as a way of encompassing the different activities into a coherent structure co-habited by all interested parties.
Another important point Hayden raised was the importance of which people commit and are highly visible and present throughout the process, in contrast to those who are more fleeting and how difficult it is to evidence these different levels of engagement.
At this point our stories diverge, as we moved into smaller group discussions and thus split up. These smaller groups were both interesting and useful in providing a nice comparison to the more academic-led commentaries of the day thus far, as the academics were not even in the room. Having this interlude in the conference allowed for us to communicate openly and honestly with some of our concerns regarding impact seeping into PhD life, our worries over a lack of knowledge around what impact means for us, the ethics of impact, when we should provide impact, and how to negotiate the impact of often-shifting projects. It was interesting to hear that there were many disagreements about the answers, if there are any, to these questions and the diversity of opinion even amongst PhD students. What did emerge from these small group discussions was an atmosphere of support and conviviality between us, in trying to negotiate what appears to be an emerging and uncertain aspect of PhD life.
Film Screening: ‘Detention Without Walls’
To end the academic side of the first day of the conference, Bridget Holtom screened a film that came from her MRes project working alongside a collective of ex-detainees facing deportation (the Life After Detention research group) and living their lives in precarious conditions. The film speaks more powerfully than we ever could, and is definitely worth watching. It is not yet published in its entirety, but excerpts can be found at https://vimeo.com/detentionwithoutwalls.
The evening activities were unstructured, but we found that the day had inspired several ideas that we shared over dinner regarding collaborations and how our research relates to impact. In stepping away from the larger group, we had more intimate conversations between ourselves and a third PhD student that were perhaps more relevant to our positions at the University of Birmingham than other discussions over the course of the day that did not relate to such insights. Look out for the forthcoming collaborative film at the launderette forthcoming out of cultural geography students at UoB!
We also joined Glasgow students and staff for some drinks later on in the evening, and it was lovely to be welcomed and see how close their relationships are and get to know them and hear about their research in a much more informal setting. Evening drinks at conferences always seem to be productive in their own ways and both the staff and students made the evening really enjoyable and gave us a taste of the fun that has had in their department outside of the formal conference setting.
Jo Sharp – International and Interdisciplinary Challenges in Following Impact
Day 2 started with a fourth commentary given by Jo Sharp. Jo’s work was a fascinating case, as the research project that she talked about predated the focus on the impact agenda, and particularly the language and evidencing of the ways in which research has impact. What this brought to light was first and foremost the non-linear nature of the impact story throughout, and indeed after, the research process. Due to her position as necessarily backdating and tracking the impact of her research process on a long since completed project, her commentary reflected the struggles of identifying where impact was present, and how it can be in very different forms than the expected ones.
What was key for Jo was the way in which a focus on impact has changed the way we work together and form relationships within research, shifting from organic, genuine connections to a necessity to create relationships that evidence impact. Jo suggested that there are more ways of demonstrating value that cannot be empirically measured and shown, such as these relationships that form throughout the research process. The gradual building of research impact was important to Jo’s work in Egypt, and it is worth noting that much of the impact has come about as part of what you might call “legacy” whereby the people she was working with have directed their own projects around education and farming relatively without her input.
Panel Discussion/Open Debate
The panel discussion was made up of Chris Philo (University of Glasgow), Caleb Johnston (University of Edinburgh), Emma Laurie (University of Glasgow), Bridget Holtom (University of Glasgow), and Heather McLean (University of Glasgow). It will be difficult to capture everything that was talked about in this session, but we can provide a summary of what each said.
Philo talked about who should be providing impact, and the expanding role of the academic outside of scholarship, and ‘academic creep’.
Johnston was highly conflicted by the impact agenda, talking about how on the one hand academics are encouraged to produce meaningful work, but worried about the pressures and the way in which this was folding into a wider neoliberal university.
Laurie talked about the impact that research could have on academic worlds, including the personal developments describing this as a different form of impact (with a small i).
Holtom questioned what can actually be done with impact, and who benefits from this, noting that actually it is often the academic who is most ‘impacted’.
McLean talked about the need to be honest about the complexities of doing particularly action research. She spoke passionately about a need for academics to work together, rather than competing with each other in terms of impact.
The discussion was very thought-provoking, and sparked wider questions for the open debate including:
- How can the impact agenda fit beyond a humanist agenda?
- How can we include historical and more-than-human geographies etc?
- Is the idea of impact making geography less critical, leading to false conclusions or a more channelled “pathway” in scholarship?
- Conversations about what impact means, and to who?
- Questions of the ‘soulfulness’ and ‘realness’ of impact processes.
Overall, we both thoroughly enjoyed the conference and found it beneficial not only to our own work, but sparking ideas around collaboration as well as making us be critical about the way we might work in the future. The main provocations focused around the reciprocity and co-dependency of impact i.e. the need for impact to be both engaged and co-produced in the same way we might come to the findings of our research. This in turn has raised the question of ownership of the impact, really focusing on who the impact is for and being aware and honest of the way that we benefit from this as academics ourselves. Finally, the main question that we both took away surrounds the need to be thoughtful and (self-) questioning about ethics when providing impact. We are well-trained to consider ethics when gathering and analysing data, but perhaps less than we should be when it comes to disseminating and working with our findings.
As a final more comical point, it is perhaps worth noting that in producing this blog we have in some ways contributed a small amount of impact from the impact conference itself… #impactception