Paul Wakeling is a senior lecturer in education at The University of York and sociologist of education. He has particular research interests in higher education, especially access to postgraduate study; and in social inequalities. In December 2014, Paul spoke at the seminar ‘Understanding and Influencing Parliament’, where he shared his experiences of engaging government and government agencies in his research. Inevitably, the conversation soon turned to the issue of ‘impact’. Here, Paul begins by briefly explaining what is meant by ‘impact’. He then goes on to explain why we would want our research to have influence and gives some suggestions on how to go about achieving this, drawing on his own experience.
One of British academia’s current buzzwords is ‘impact’. Through the so-called ‘impact agenda’, this little word is prompting all sorts of academic and policy debates about what the impact of research is, should be or can be. I won’t go into that here – if you are interested in finding out more about the concept and its reception I suggest you talk to fellow Education PhD student Jenn Chubb, whose research focuses on this topic.
Broadly speaking, ‘impact’ refers to the effects which our research has ‘out there’ beyond the academy. So for those of us working on education in schools, how do our findings influence what teachers do, for instance? Concern with these kinds of outcomes have always been a large part of what motivates many researchers. However, funders are now becoming more interested in these outcomes, as opposed to the purely academic merit of our research, especially where they are considering increasing funds . Again, this is a controversial topic which deserves a blogpost all of its own! Instead, I will simply note that the two main funders of research in England – Research Councils UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England – now include impact as part of their assessment of grant proposals and the overall quality of research being conducted in institutions.
So there are instrumental reasons for wanting research to have impact, since this moves us up the relevant ranking or gives us a better chance of receiving a grant. I would hope, however, that researchers in education want to have impact for different reasons: they want to improve education, fix problems, generate new ideas, and generally make the world a better place in some way. In my view it is our duty to seek to do this, but there are lots of different ways to go about doing it.
Part of the difficulty is getting from findings to influence. Traditional academic dissemination, such as the conference circuit and journals, are usually aimed at other scholars. They remain important ways of getting research ‘out there’, but we should also think about other ways to share findings and their implications with those who could make use of them. When it works best, getting our research into the hands of teachers, policymakers and other key people also helps to improve our own understanding of a situation, leading to new research questions and strategies.
So how can you go about achieving this? My first piece of advice would be to be realistic and start small. Can you share findings with your existing contacts and networks? Are there small groups or organisations who might be interested and to whom you could give a presentation? Are there obvious interested parties like pressure groups? Remember that it can be difficult for organisations to find speakers for events. Don’t underestimate the value of a good piece of empirical research here, as many events about both policy and practice rely heavily on anecdote and opinion!
There may be a very obvious target audience for your findings. I completed my own MA by research here at York, in the Department of Education, looking at the social class background of students entering postgraduate courses in the UK. After I finished, I targeted certain organisations which I knew had responsibilities in this area and wrote to them about what I had found. In many cases, this was a ‘cold call’ – they didn’t know me and I had no idea whether they would respond. I bought some quality paper and wrote a short letter, setting out my findings in plain, non-academic language, and posted this off (this was before email was universal!). Some organisations did not reply, some sent just a short acknowledgement, but one or two others wanted to know more. This led to further discussions, meetings and one or two presentations, which themselves generated further contacts.
Depending on your research, another way to get your findings to the ‘right’ people is to respond to consultations. I have done this several times now, when the government has invited evidence and views on relevant policies and ideas. It feels like a one-way conversation at the time – you send in your views and hear nothing in return. In some cases it’s likely that your evidence doesn’t fit whatever line the government of the time wants to take. But again, there is often a shortage of the kind of sober, critical evidence which academic research can provide. This alone can help set your evidence apart from the usual list of lobbyists, think-tanks and those asserting their opinions without evidence.
The number of outlets for you to share your research findings is growing. Things like blogs and Twitter can be very useful for this purpose and are much more likely to be read by those involved in policy, journalists and to some extent teachers. Again, you need to adjust your style for a non-academic audienc, but this can be quite liberating: no APA referencing! Do think carefully about how much blogging you do – you have other important demands on your time such as writing your thesis and drafting academic publications. Some do find the time to keep up their own regular blog, but it can be even more effective to contribute guest blog posts to popular sites. In my field this would include ‘WonkHE’ and the LSE Politics and Policy blog.
Above all, recognise that impact is rarely instant. You need patience and persistence. With good quality research and interesting findings, things will happen. In my case, I have been engaging in some of this activity for over a decade and it is only now beginning to feel like things are happening. I’m convinced that some of this comes from a seed planted through evidence submitted or conversations held years ago, which is only now beginning to bloom. That sort of commitment is best sustained by something you feel passionately about and not as a means to a career end. But the reward of satisfaction from involvement in that topic which drew you in to research in the first place is well worth the wait.