Frameworks for impact

Annie Brookman-Byrne reports on the knowledge exchange and impact session at the Annual Conference.

Many academics love the parts of their job that involve knowledge exchange and impact. Fewer are keen on metrics to assess those aspects. Unfortunately, the research excellence framework (REF) and knowledge exchange framework (KEF) require universities to submit case studies providing evidence of these activities, so that they can be assessed. The burden mainly falls on academics, who both write case studies, and assess those of others. The knowledge exchange and impact panel session therefore sought to highlight the purpose of these exercises and the processes involved, while showcasing good examples from psychologists.

Professor Dianna Harcourt’s (University of the West of England) presentation of her work promoting body acceptance and appreciation provided an insight into high-quality activities that lead to impact. Harcourt’s impressive portfolio includes a board game for children, an intervention for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, numerous festivals, and a policy change requiring all cleft teams to include a psychologist. In order to demonstrate and evidence impact, Harcourt recommended planning from the outset and seizing all opportunities such as media appearances and joining committees.

Dr Helena Mills, head of REF policy at Research England, explained that impact must be underpinned by research. This can be challenging: Harcourt described that it can be difficult to point to a specific piece of research that led to impact, as it often results from more than one study. Another challenge Harcourt found was in the additional work and resources necessary to survey the impact of an activity. Mills highlighted the need for verifiable evidence of both reach and significance, so the additional work is crucial in proving impact.

Advocate for knowledge exchange, Dr Suzanne Zeedyk (University of Dundee), aims to help the public understand basic science. She described her work translating concepts that are meaningful to scientists (such as attachment and coregulation) through different fora, including exhibitions and resources. While Zeedyk’s activities have been hugely influential, her affiliated university has not had any formal recognition, since the structures in place do not fit with this type of work. 

Dr Hamish McAlpine, head of knowledge exchange data and evidence at Research England, acknowledged the difficulty in reducing these successes into metrics. Nonetheless, McAlpine explained that the KEF is designed to help universities understand their own performance, and to provide information to potential external partners. The KEF is currently in iteration one, so perhaps the future will hold better ways of measuring atypical knowledge exchange activities.

For many academics, measuring these activities (or indeed any university activities – there is of course the teaching excellence framework (TEF) too) will never be a worthwhile activity, taking valuable time and resources from the jobs they want to be doing. But it looks like the REF, KEF, and TEF are going nowhere. One small silver lining is that those who do engage in excellent impact and knowledge exchange activities may be better appreciated and respected by their universities – just so long as they have the verifiable evidence to prove it.

-      We like to think that The Psychologist can serve as a pathway to impact. If you’ve done the research, tell us about it and we can generally help to put it in front of a large and diverse audience… who knows where that could lead? And of course if you’ve already had the impact and done the work on an impact case study, why not tell us about that?

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