Introduction from our new DPVC Research Impact

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written by Professor Heather Widdows

Impact matters 

Impact matters. For research to matter at all, it should, in some form and at some time, have impact in the world. This might not be immediate or direct, but if our research does not have impact – on how we understand ourselves and our world, on how we build our environments and cultures, on how we transform and create future worlds – then it is not research that matters. This broad understanding of impact does not map directly onto REF definitions and cycles, but the belief that academics can and should contribute to the world is behind the increasing move towards impactful research in the REF, in the current funding calls, in UKRI and in what just a few weeks ago was called the KEF. Academics should be at the heart of policy debate, be driving innovative industry and be creating culture. To do this impact needs to be central – not peripheral or additional – and built into our very conception of what makes a good researcher. This vision of where we should be will inform my work as I take up this new role of DPVC. The role is set up to support the creation and delivery of the University’s impact submission in 2021, and to raise the profile and quality of research impact more generally. In my view we can’t do one without the other. Only if the value and status of impact is recognised and rewarded proportionately and appropriately will we deliver the impact case studies needed for 2021 and create the thriving research and impact culture we will need to be a successful research intensive institution in the future. I will focus on four areas: 

  • Strategic planning around the shape of our impact submission for 2021

I will explore what impact case studies are in development, what potential there is for uncovering further impact case studies, and what creative matchmaking is possible between units to build stronger thematic case studies. I will work with heads of college, schools, departments and institutes, as well impact leads, planning partners and support staff and impact case study leads. While we are still somewhat in the dark we have some strong steers on what will count as impact and on just how much impact will matter. In my first twelve months I aim to make sure we know where all potential impact is located and to model the different ways we might deploy it.

  • Progressing each and every case study

In areas where we are very sure what our case studies are I will work to ensure that the support is in place – on the ground, at school and college levels – to make sure that each impact case study lead or team has what they need to deliver high star impact. In preparation for this role I have spoken to people from across colleges, and know that while the importance of impact is increasingly recognised this needs to translate into practical measures which make it possible for impact to be prioritised. Prioritising impact and ensuring that every case study lead with the potential for high star impact is properly supported will be a priority in my first twelve months.

  • Tailoring targets, evaluations and key messages to UoA’s in discipline specific ways

Impact success looks different in different disciplines. Understanding exactly what each UoA requires and ensuring that all staff have awareness of what REF success will look like and how important impact is in this will be a priority. For example, different UoAs need different quality of cases to maintain or improve rankings; staff expansions need to be underpinned with impact if they are not to weaken REF performance; and impact needs to be evaluated in discipline-appropriate ways..

  • Transforming impact culture

That impact matters is no longer a question, the figures speak for themselves. Depending on the UOA an impact case study is worth at least 10 outputs. Indeed, impact is worth more than the 25% devoted to case studies, given its contribution to the environment template. In my first year I will seek to get out in the schools and the colleges with the key figures showing just how much impact mattered last time around in league table placement and QR funding. In the next REF cycle we should have excellent impact flowing from our outstanding and world-leading research and our question should be “what is the Birmingham brand of impact?”. Birmingham needs to be an anchor for regional, national, and international development. It should function as an impact hub, rooted in the region, but at the heart of global networks in industry, culture and policy. To do this we need to transform the status of impact.

Let me finish on a personal note. Impact matters in my own work. I came to Birmingham because it supported me as a research active philosopher who also engaged in policy and activism beyond academia. In my forthcoming book, Perfect Me! Beauty as an Ethical Ideal (Princeton University Press) I make arguments about issues which impact globally on young women, and increasingly men. If you are interested in my current work check out my Beauty Demands blog, run with Fiona MacCallum, (Psychology, Warwick).

I look forward to working with you.

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