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Matthew Flinders

31 May 2022, 2:12 UTC Share

Daring to be a Daniel – Against Policy Impact

In order to contribute to the debate concerning the ‘impact agenda’, in general, and policy engagement, in particular Matthew Flinders challenges what he suggest is the existence of ‘a self-evident truth’ that policy engagement is always a ‘good thing’. In doing so the current chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network suggests that although significant progress and understanding has been achieved in relation to nurturing and incentivising non-academic engagement by researchers fundamental questions still remain unanswered and generally unacknowledged.

The impact agenda in the United Kingdom has existed for around fifteen years and the completion of the REF2021 assessment exercise provides an opportunity to take stock of how academic practice, culture and structures have evolved during that time.

This is not to suggest in any way at all that academic commitment or interest in notions of ‘social relevance’, ‘public value’ or ‘non-academic impact’ in some way began at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The political and social sciences were generally forged out of a commitment to utilising scientific methods and insights to drive positive social change.

What changed in relation to the politics and governance of higher in education in the UK around a decade-and-a-half ago was that an assessment of non-academic ‘impact’ became an explicit element of the national audit framework for identifying ‘research excellence’.

This began with REF2014, was enhanced within REF2021 and is, if anything, likely to increase in emphasis within any future assessment processes.

What’s interesting about this evolution is how it has almost defined my own professional journey as a political scientist who operates at the intersection between research and policy. Whether defined as ‘high impact research’ or ‘engaged scholarship’ what has often been labelled as ‘the tyranny of relevance’ has almost defined my career. The need to produce ‘Impact Case Studies’ an almost constant pressure, challenge, strain and distraction.

But what’s really interesting is how the ‘impact agenda’ has shifted or changed in recent years, and where blockages and barriers still exist.

The changes, I’m glad to say, are mostly positive. My sense is that the culture within academe has become far less resistant to the imposition of impact as an explicit requirement when thinking about or conducting research. Early career researchers are often far more enthusiastic about ‘engaging with multiple audiences in multiple ways’ – to borrow a phrase from Michael Burawoy – than many of their more established professorial colleagues.

The framing of impact-related discussions has also changed. Instead of talking about the role of academics, higher education or universities the discussion is now generally framed in terms of facilitating mobility within and across ‘the research, development and innovation ecosystem’.

To talk in terms of the ‘ecosystem’ is not to absorb the jargon of meaningless managerialism or to accept any diminution in the role or status of universities. But it is to recognise the existence of difference forms of knowledge, the existence of different research-related environments and the need therefore to facilitate the mobility of people, knowledge and talent across traditional disciplinary, organisational and professional boundaries.

As a result what has also changed is the recognition that the skills and support structures that academics need to flourish and thrive in the twenty-first century are unlike those that sustained what were generally far narrower scholarly careers in the mid-to-late twentieth century. More specifically, what has emerged – notably in the wake of the creation of UKRI – is a focus on distinguishing between funding research, on the one hand, and building research infrastructure, on the other.

Infrastructure involving a focus on people, culture, skills and talent. Infrastructure also in terms of investing in synthetic research, in translational capacities and in the creation of new boundary-spanning platforms or opportunities. Investments also in terms of thinking about professional research support staff and the knowledge-brokers who very often form key members of any research team. From the ‘Areas of Research Interest’ right through to the Future Leader Fellows Development Network, through to the new ESRC Policy Fellows, the fundamental review of the PhD in the social sciences and the national review into research leadership there is far more of a focus on connectivity, fluidity and flow than ever before. Anyone who doubts this general drift would do well to read the new UKRI strategic plan for 2022-2026.

The support, structures and scaffolding that academics need to navigate the research-policy nexus and to engage beyond academe is gradually being put in place.

There are, of course, those who will bemoan such developments and lament ‘the decline of donnish dominion’ – to paraphrase the title of A. H. Halsey’s classic book – and there is something to be said for those who adopt a critical and questioning approach to the impact agenda. There are others who possibly go a little too far in speaking about those who have produced REF-related impact case studies in terms of having ‘cravings for acceptance’, having ‘fallen prey to the fate of Narcissus’, being ‘ensnared by an infatuation with their self-image’, offering ‘hubris in overdrive’, etc. etc. as Richard Watermeyer argues in his book Competitive Accountability in Public Life (2019).

“Such poseurs are viewed not only with suspicion and distaste as self-serving opportunists but as individuals who are parasitical and harmful to the kinds of relationships assiduously built up and cultivated over many a year by those with (presumably) more honest, selfless and benevolent intentions. They are a tribe characterised by impetuosity and mercantilist greed seen by respondents to jeopardise and bankrupt the good faith and goodwill shown to academics by their public stakeholders through an excess of self-exposure and braggadocio. “

As a former ESRC national ‘Impact Champion’ I’m guessing my position as a posing, greedy, self-serving opportunist, parasite par excellence, etc. etc. is beyond dispute but could it be that hidden within such hyperbole their lurks a deeper issue that warrants a more balanced discussion?

One of the key shifts that has occurred within the research funding landscape, within and beyond the UK, is an implicit belief that policy engagement by researchers is by definition ‘a good thing’ alongside an explicit emphasis on nurturing forms of co-production and co-design. It is this vein that the UKRI strategic plan for 2022-2026 includes a commitment to work in partnership with researchers, policy-makers, practitioners, funders, business and civil society ‘to co-create research agendas’.

It is at exactly this point that I want to inject a little disruptive thinking on the basis of Elinor Ostrom’s warning about ‘the dangers of self-evident truths’. Ostrom’s argument – herself a Nobel prize winner – was simply that ‘the fact that something is widely believed does not make it true’ and, as such, her entreaty was to encourage academics to challenge fundamental assumptions and beliefs.

My argument is simply that the assumption that policy engagement is a ‘good thing’ and that forms of co-production and co-creation should form the foundation of the research, development and innovation ecosystem are in danger of themselves becoming ‘self-evident truths’.

Such ‘unthinking’ acceptance – to use a truly ugly but fitting term – is what I am against when it comes to both policy engagement and co-design.

This is because such processes raise questions of independence, criticality and control that have generally not been raised let alone answered. Tenure was traditional a protection against co-option and a guarantor of free-thinking; the increasingly precarious employment status of many academics removes such traditional defences.

As such, my point is less against policy impact and more in favour of critical thinking.

The intellectual origins of my position lie in the arguments of Noam Chomsky concerning the role of academics in society. Put simply, Chomsky’s work on ‘the responsibility of intellectuals’ was published in the New York Review of Books in February 1967 and distinguished between ‘technocratic and policy-orientated intellectuals’ and ‘value-orientated intellectuals’. The former were ‘the good guys’ in the eyes of the establishment who served the needs of the system; while the latter were ‘the bad guys’ from an establishment perspective who dared to speak truth to power, exposed lies and engaged in critical analysis.

Such binary conceptions are clearly problematic. Twenty-five years of working in Whitehall and Westminster has taught me that ‘technocratic and policy-orientated intellectuals’ can exert a criticality and influence upon politicians and beliefs in ways that are hard to measure or demonstrate from the outside. Being engaged and policy-focused is not necessarily the same as being passive. The flip-side is that those intellectuals who heckle from the side-lines but refuse to engage are themselves very often ‘impotent-by-choice’.

They exist like political parties who hold their principles so purely that they never win power and are therefore never able to influence anything. Heckling from the side-lines is too easy and academic life was never supposed to be a spectator sport.

And yet the contemporary thrust towards co-production and co-design is a reflection of a broader process whereby the traditional ‘arm’ in the arm’s-length relationship between the government ministers and research funding agencies has become significantly shorter.

This is not a criticism: just a statement of fact.

Research funding is increasingly linked to state-directed societal challenges that require those academics who seek funding to work within a specific idiom, and ideally to work through forms of co-creation with potential research-users. This is where Chomsky’s distinction and even Watermeyer’s concerns about impact begin to gain traction.

As research funding is increasingly allocated in what might be termed ‘the shadow of the state’ then the notion of relevance risks mutating towards forms of deference, co-option and control.
Balancing engagement and criticality, or autonomy and control have emerged as the ‘deep story’ when it comes to the need for ‘rethinking’ policy impact.

Maintaining a healthy balance between ‘technocratic and policy-orientated intellectuals’ and more critical ‘value-orientated’ scholars then becomes a core challenge for the broader ecosystem. Disruptive disengagement from policy-making is at some level and in some ways likely to be extremely healthy in both intellectual and democratic terms. But encouraging, nurturing and supporting ‘value-orientated and policy-engaged’ scholars is probably even more important.

This in itself demands an intellectual rethinking of the role, limits and paradoxes of policy-engagement alongside a broader professional conversation about how a commitment to relevance can retain a criticality which protects it from becoming a synonym for deference.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also Vice-President of the Political Studies Association, Chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network and a Professorial Civic Fellow at the Institute for Community Studies at the Young Foundation. @politicalspike

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