May 8, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Exploring the language of impact

I recently collected a few indicative phrases around ‘impact’, one of the pillars of the Research Excellence Framework. In one email a colleague asked me “Can we call that impact?” (400 hits on facebook linked to a TV interview linked to a still speculative health improvement measure). A tweet announced: “That’s what I call impact”, after a blog had been quoted in a ministerial speech. I then read this sentence in an article on podcasts: “And how many clicks it will take for a podcast to count as impact.” Another tweeter reported that she had impact but it was not countable because she could not be entered into the REF. And yet another person told me they had achieved impact but as it was not linked to published research it didn’t count. A professor of philosophy wrote in The Guardian that he probably had had impact but as there was no audit trail that impact probably didn’t count either. Such statements, questions and cries of despair (across all disciplines) are swirling all around us in ever denser formations (reminding me a bit of Goya’s lithograph Sleep of Reason). Unfortunately, there is only rather bewildering advice out there on how to deal with the vicissitudes of impact.

Impact and the REF

The standard answer provided by the REF itself is the following:

“Impact includes, but is not limited to, an effect on, change or benefit to:

  • The activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding
  • Of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals
  • In any geographic location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally”

Change of (benefit to) understanding is really our metier in academia, whether we are working in the ‘sciences’ or ‘humanities’, whether we do ‘research’ or ‘scholarship’ (we are all in this enterprise together, despite such divisive distinctions). However, when one reads on one finds that “advancement of knowledge” is excluded from ‘impact’. And, in a way, this makes sense, as what is being monitored is how the advancement of knowledge impacts on say policy, or, indeed, on changes in understanding. But all this adds to the confusion. Things get even more difficult when it comes to locating and tracing impact to the point where it ‘hits’ the ‘real world’, whatever that may be.

Despite the semantic ambiguities and slipperiness of the term ‘impact’, a new language has evolved around this word that will probably at some point be recorded by the OED. We find talk about the ‘impact agenda’, ‘impact case studies’, ‘impact statements’; there is an ‘impact portal’; even an ‘impact enhancement officer’; and there have of course been ‘impact pilot exercises’.  There are also ‘pathways to impact’ and there is talk of ‘excellence with impact’…. All this should, of course, not be confused with ‘impact factors’ of journals. One can see that a whole linguistic network is being spun around us in which we get more and more entangled.

Semantic pathways to impact and beyond

I don’t think I can show anybody a way out of this entanglement, but might be able to give you an idea about where the thread began and how one could spin it differently, perhaps. Etymologically ‘impact’ is a very young noun, mostly employed in scientific discourse in the sense of ‘collision’. It was first used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1781. “Bp. R. Watson Chem. Ess. (1784) I. 165 (note), The same rule, by which common velocity of hard or non-elastic bodies after their impact‥is calculated.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge apparently used it first in a figurative sense in 1817, meaning ‘forceful impression’. And in 1952 Bertrand Russell spoke of ‘The Impact of Science on Society’. In the first chapter of this book Russell writes about the ‘effects’ of science on society and says they are of various different kinds. “There are direct intellectual effects: the dispelling of many traditional beliefs, and the adoption of others suggested by the success of the scientific method. Then there are effects on technique in industry and war. Then, chiefly as a consequence of new techniques, there are profound changes in social organization which are gradually bringing about corresponding political changes.”

It seems that the modern impact agenda focuses mostly on the latter ‘effects’ rather than on the former. Is this the right direction to take or should one go back to a broader definition of impact as proposed by Russell and implicit in the issue of ‘changing understanding’? But then again how do we ‘audit’ this? And should we even try? Is that what work at a university has come to?

The elusive impact particle

But let us go back to Coleridge’s sense of impact as ‘forceful impression’. What the impact agenda seems to be about is tracing ‘forceful impressions’ left by academic work on the ‘real world’. This still reeks a bit of impact in the sense of collision rather than, say, interaction, dialogue or exchange. We trace our impacts between the academic and the real world, just like a particle collider traces impacts between particles. And, I have to confess, my own search for impact leaves me thinking that it is as elusive as the Higgs Boson.

Image credit: Higgs boson simulation, Cern (Mette Høst)

Mette will exhibit some of her paintings at an ESF Visualisation conference I am organising in September.

PS – Nathan Oxley has published a nice blog post on impact, worth reading!  (added 8 November 2013)


Posted in ImpactLanguage