Astronomy Magazine


Posted on the 03 April 2014 by Andyxl @e_astronomer

I thought maybe a Bruce Willis style title was needed. Well, if I’d written “A report on an RCUK workshop I attended concerning possible adjustments to the Pathways to Impact process” its just possible there might not have been so many click-throughs. So. Anyhoo. Some things surprised me and some didn’t…

(1) Pretty much everybody (including me) agreed that the Impact thing is in general a Good Thing, but only if it avoids degenerating into a box ticking mechanical exercise. Unfortunately this is a Big If, as we all know.

(2) Also everybody seemed to agree it should work by carrot and not by stick, and that while it should generally be important to the community as a whole, it doesn’t have to apply equally to every single separate individual. Many but maybe not all of us agreed that this sort of thing works best if pursued by talented individuals who are actually keen on it, and helped by departmentally based tech-transfer specialists.

(3) There were many other detailed concerns and confusions, but I am happy to report that I am left with the impression that STFC is actually doing this much more sanely than the rest.  Our community’s impact statements are generally of a high standard. They are scored by specialists in the office, not by academic referees. They are averaged over groups, and averaged over time. They are graded and known to count in getting your research funding, but only along with many other known criteria. On the other hand, there are  distinct pots of competitive money for impact activity, which provides the carrot. All this is, I think, well understood by our community.

By contrast, I heard from other councils/scientists that impact statements are pass/fail, and are often sent back to be re-done; that people find it hard and unrealistic because each separate project needs its own impact plan; but on on the other hand it was unclear whether it actually made any difference, that people didn’t know the rules, and it wasn’t clear where in the “research cycle” it made sense to plan impact. Nearly all these problems evaporate in the context of the consolidated grant system (likewise the old rolling grant system), and dedicated commercialisation and public engagement schemes. Suddenly I understood why the pages of THES were full of people whingeing about Impact, and why this is never astronomers or particle physicists.

Of course, the scary thing is that BIS/RCUK being the way it is, there is a distinct danger that STFC will be forced into line to be more like everybody else. Gird your loins. You don’t want this.

(4) Maybe the least surprising thing… the air was thick with gobbledegook. I hate to be tribal but … glancing round the room I could tell who had a physical sciences background by the grimaces whenever anybody said we had to “interrogate the challenges” or “discuss the issue around X”, or when it was claimed that the issue was that  “we were seeing a conceptual problem with linearity” and so on.  If you swallow your annoyance and let these kind of phrases swim round your head for a bit, you can usually see what people are getting at. Usually.

(5) Andy Parker, currently Head of the Cavendish, grabbed an opportunity to make a nice wee speechette. Impact is fine – it has to be good gently encouraging scientists to be relevant. But the real problem with UK PLC is that Big Finance does not invest in technology. The City only thinks about money in abstract. I guess UK industry is a bit unadventurous too, but the real problem is the Absence of Angels.

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