Alright, I’m going to jump in with something that baffles me. Why is ‘engagement’ such a hurdle for academics? Why is it separated from research and not an integral part of the process and its outcomes?

Sure, impact is going to play a bigger part of the REF as we struggle to justify our existence to a skeptical audience of public, funding bodies, governing bodies and academic faculty. Yet PhDs coming through get varying opportunities to engage with these impact issues, ranging from 4* impact projects to absolutely zero experience, and it becomes a real challenge to integrate impact into a project proposal.

Even then, there’s the problems of traditional thinking and ‘what is impact’ to grapple with. You may have a brilliant idea that is quantatively successful, but the qualitative success can be questioned and even scorned. Similarly, a project with qualitative success can be criticised unfairly because of limited reach or scope.

Here’s an example from our STEM colleagues that had me in full rant mode to @WeTheHumanities/Nigel the other week (Prof. Nigel Morley is based at Bristol and tweets @NigelMorley). Note that WeTheHumanities is a rotation curation account; at the time I took the screenshot, curation had moved on to Sjoerd Levelt who tweets @SLevelt.

Nigel responded:

That Times Higher Ed article is indeed a case in point. What is legitimate impact? Who determines what you can do? The issue with the ballet, for example, roundly criticised by Dr Simon Singh at a conference in Amsterdam on alternative metrics, was an intensely personal one, if a little tongue-in-cheek (one would hope).

“People hate physics, they hate ballet; all you’ve done is allowed people to hate things more efficiently,” he [Dr Singh] told the 2:AM Amsterdam conference about alternative metrics on 7 October. “I just don’t understand how this gets vast amounts of money.” – David Matthews, ‘Simon Singh Criticises Wasteful Spending in Science Outreach’, Times Higher Education (13 Oct 2015)

I quite like ballet, and I would have gone to see something on Einstein just for the sheer offbeat joy of that. That sounds like something that I, with my hard-won A* in GSCE Physics following a good run of Ds and Es in all the homework, would enjoy and learn something from. Even if it’s that electrons can do a pretty good pas-des-deux. That’s not just me, apparently:

A spokesman for the Institute of Physics, which commissioned the ballet, said that it had cost the organisation about £30,000 and had been a “remarkable success” that “introduced thousands of people, usually disinterested in physics, to inspiring concepts in a beautiful way”. – David Matthews, ‘Simon Singh Criticises Wasteful Spending in Science Outreach’, Times Higher Education (13 Oct 2015)

I leave that with you for your consideration. According to David Matthews, Dr Singh said that a project’s value for money should be compared with the cost of a science teacher. That’s interesting in itself: it reveals the perceived why of engagement, its entire raison d’être: impact is for education. And traditional teaching methods are subconsciously (and/or consciously) used as a comparative counterpoint to the impact project.

This would be one of the reasons impact often lives and dies in the form of the Public Talk, while more inventive and creative impact studies are considered too problematic for the environment in which the project is embedded,  or too labour-intensive to be conducted. Sometimes it’s a time issue, or lack of experience with little support, or confidence. A combination of the above factors is often the case, from my own experience and from talking with others from across various institutions.

Yet, impact is increasingly flagged up as crucial. The REF is undergoing changes, with meetings taking place to discuss how it will be weighted. I would speculate that the way things are going, impact is not going to slip down the priority scale; a 4* activity is worth as much as a monograph already. With the growing culture of justification around the Arts and Humanities disciplines, translating research to the public is no longer enough. There is growing pressure to enhance the curriculum of schools, increase HE participation through Widening Access schemes, and enrich the lives of people in local communities. And why wouldn’t you want to do that? Surely the Ivory Towers containing our untouchable Grails of knowledge are to be poured out anyway, not hoarded by self-appointed Fisher Kings? What exactly are we Doing Academia for? And for whom?

Grand and laudable projects such as Cardiff’s SPARK, the development of the world’s first Social Science Research Park seek to change the world. Seriously, it’s massively cool. Not only will it boost the Welsh economy by millions of British pounds a year, according to economists, it actually will develop strategies and solutions to actual world problems. Medievalists may not be able to get in on this, but it’s clear to see where the priorities lie and why.

You can persuade people that there is a point to saving the world – most people, at any rate, though you may get some quibbles: I did hear the complaint that they should be building a staff carpark on that site instead – but start talking about funding projects to Do Stuff With History and, like the criticism of Dr Singh, you may well be faced with ‘No, we’re not funding this, because I don’t see the point.’

This is still a hot topic. The Guardian Higher Ed has recently picked up the theme, in an article focused on the U.S. situation.

This prompted another little *cough* one-sided discussion from me.

The CAER Heritage Project is a world-leading, 4* impact project that won the NCCPE Engage Competition award in 2014. Why? Well, the tl:dr version is that it’s a genuinely brilliant project that co-produces research with the local community, with loads of spinoff activities and constant engagement throughout the year, training jobseekers in transferable skills on free archaeology courses, giving people pride in their local community and its history and heritage, boosting the local economy, and so much more.

In one write-up of the award, which I’m not going to attribute because I don’t want to sound like I’m at all bitter, the other entries – mostly science or healthcare based, all of which were genuinely great and more than deserved their place in the pantheon of nationally recognised projects – were each given a good bit, then basically the punchline was ‘look at all these awesome and useful things, and after all that they gave the award to some local archaeology project.’ A point was made of noting that those going up to receive the award ‘wore t-shirts saying I Dig Caerau’. You bet they did. I’m inclined to take that in the spirit it was surely meant – the t-shirts and the community they represent are awesome and therefore the only dress sense worth commenting on – rather than, ‘oh, and they didn’t even wear ties’. There was no mention of why CAER won the overall award. The NCCPE had to explain this in a comment on the online article: that CAER was the most well-rounded in terms of scope and aims and achievements; that it was ongoing; that it co-produced research  with the community rather than made the community the recipients of research, etc.

I told the co-directors I’d let it go, but apparently I’m still seething just a little bit. Before I’m accused of bias, I will proudly put my hand up and say yes, I totally am. I’m privileged to be one of the public engagement workers and currently the Medieval Researcher on the project, so I know what I’m talking about when I say how hard everyone works, especially Olly Davis and Dave Wyatt, and how great it has been and continues to be to work with our partners, including Action in Caerau and Ely (ACE), local filmmakers and artists, schools and colleges, councillors, MPs and AMs, and the people of Caerau and Ely themselves.

Fortunately, it has funding to continue.

Unfortunately, it has no consistent source of funding to continue. At the moment it is AHRC-funded, but applying on an annual basis for funds is an ongoing battle.

Transferring this experience of an established project across to an untested proposed project, then, such as the one bubbling in your own mind to attract the attention of REF-conscious employers and funding bodies, perhaps the question is, how much are you willing to do, and how little are you prepared to do it for? I have no suggestions for this. Hoping to spark a discussion that will prove useful.