Monday, 3 September 2012

Achieving impact

Posted by Jean Adams 

There are two things that research is judged on in the UK at the moment – the quality of ’outputs’, which means journal papers in my neck of the woods; and ‘impact’. The official definition of impact is “any social, economic or cultural impact or benefit beyond academia”. In public health, the sorts of things that might count are a change in local or national policy or practice that followed from your research findings. 

It all sounds so sensible, doesn’t it? Of course we should specifically value research that has a positive impact on the everyday lives of the people who, by and large, pay for it through their taxes. Aside from the obvious implication that just to know something we didn’t know before is somehow a less valuable than ‘impact’, my experience is that achieving impact is a serendipitous thing. Something that seems to be as reliant on being in the right place at the right time, as on doing high quality research. 

Research impact
I spent two hours last month defending a piece of work that we published earlier this year. It was some of the most intensive questioning I’ve experienced on my research. A bit like my PhD viva, but without the suit and focusing on just one 3,000 word paper, rather than three full years of work and a 50,000 word thesis.

The paper was about TV food advertising to children. It had come to the attention of Ofcom. Our findings were at odds with one of Ofcom’s own reports and so they were keen to discuss differences between our respective methodologies and how we might reconcile our conflicting findings.

It was an interesting experience and the people from Ofcom had obviously done their homework – they’d read our paper in great depth and wanted to talk through every sentence, and every cell of every table. As I say, it was a pretty intense couple of hours. I think we came out okay – sure our research had some limitations, but so does all research – compromises have to be made. But that doesn’t mean we don’t stand by our findings. They were kind enough to leave off pointing out how rude we’d been about their research until the last 10 minutes or so.

As the meeting was winding up, I took the chance to ask: “so what happens next?” Because when you get a chance to speak with people who work for national policy organisations, you kind of think you should take the opportunity to try and somehow make a contribution; to achieve impact.

My polite enquiry was met with a shrug and: “well, this is not something that’s on the policy agenda at the moment.”

Our research findings reflect the final recommendations of NICE public health guidance on prevention of cardiovascular disease, as well as the position of the British Heart Foundation, the World Cancer Research Fund, and the Scottish Public Health Minister. But it’s not on the policy agenda.

And that, I fear, may be that. We did some work that certainly could achieve impact. We even got the chance to speak to some people who might have been able to help us enact that impact. But it’s not on the policy agenda.

Serious question: what else can we do to achieve impact?

1 comment:

  1. I suspect you achieved more impact than you think. There is serendipity in impact, but there is also the drip-drip-drip: whilst it might not be on or top of the agenda right now, it may be in the future - and yours is one of the drips that gets it there.