Lack of instant impact is not failure

Asking social scientists to demonstrate academic impact ignores the messy reality of political lobbying, says Matthew Flinders

September 14, 2018
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Failure is an unavoidable element of any academic career.

For all but a small number of “superstar über-scholars”, most of the research papers that we submit will be rejected, our most innovative book proposals will be politely rebuffed and our applications for grants, prizes and fellowships will fall foul of good fortune.

There is, of course, a strong correlation between ambition and failure in the sense that the more innovative and risky you try to be, the bolder the claims that you try to substantiate and the “bigger” the journal that you try to publish in the higher your chances of rejection.

After two decades of learning to play the journal publishing game – and it is a game – I have seen how the inbuilt conservatism of peer review processes are almost guaranteed to suffocate any fresh thinking; intellectual ambition is almost killed at birth and many of our best scholars are now based beyond academe.

I remember once sitting on an interview panel for a professorial position and one candidate proudly announced that he had published more than 200 journal articles and “had never had an article rejected!” This immodest boast was clearly designed to curry favour in a REF-driven context but to me it represented little more than an admission of intellectual timidity. “Maybe you should try a little harder?” I mischievously suggested.

I recently found myself in a similarly perplexing professional predicament while lunching with a ridiculously “senior” professor of political science. My painful sense of academic inadequacy may have led me to rather over-emphasise that I had been appointed the special adviser to a House of Lords select committee.

My pudding may well have been slightly over-egged but this could not explain the rather deflating response.

“Why the hell would you want to waste your time with that?” Professor X retorted [note: not my lunch partner’s real name]. “It’s like signing up to failure…the government will never accept what the committee says.”

With this totally unexpected “Why would you bother?” reaction ringing in my ears, I quickly shifted the focus of the conversation to far weightier matters and the long-term implications of Prof. X’s recent journal article on the political economy of fountain pen production in Ulan Bator (apparently a booming industry in Mongolia).

This conversation came back to haunt me when the government did, with all but a few minor concessions, reject the committee’s report. To use the language of “rejection” rather underplays the government’s response. The government did not want to play ball, it was not interested, it said “go away and stop bothering us” – the steamroller was not in the mood to be heckled.

I had failed. I had wasted my time – lots of time (and the time of many other people).

Nine months of frenzied research, more than 250 submissions of evidence, 58 witnesses, two committee visits plus lots of other activity and the meticulous crafting of a final report had really failed to have much of an impact at all. Professor X was really had been a waste of time.

Or had it?

Three words, one little question, three short answers.

First, politics is a messy business. It works through the grating and grinding of a complex institutional machine and very often produces what an economist would call suboptimal decisions. Politics works through the planting of seeds and the injection of ideas and evidence into contested ideological terrain. Many overlapping games are being played out at any one moment and it would be rare for any government to accept the recommendations of a select committee en masse.

It is far more likely that impact will occur by stealth, with the government quietly adopting the odd idea or two without fanfare, the report possibly helping to shape or inform policy well below the waterline of headline government business.

That is how politics works – through the creation of cracks and wedges, through the intellectual slow boring of hard boards and through the planting of seeds that may bear fruit in the future. That is not failure – it’s just how politics works.

Second, this explains why impact is a messy business for the social sciences. I can prove that my research was relevant, I can prove that I played a role in relation to knowledge exchange but I cannot claim that any of this extensive activity had a direct impact in terms of changing policy or public behaviour (or the quality of Mongolian fountain pens).

This is the challenge or risk that any social scientist takes when investing lots of time and energy in impact activities: the great problem of sowing seeds in a political context is that you can never be absolutely sure that they will germinate.

And even if your seeds begin to take root and grow, the messiness of politics will inevitably ensure that it’s hard to prove an unequivocal link between your research and what happens. But fuzzy impact is not failure, it just reflects the way in which the social sciences feed their insights into an increasingly complex social milieu. Which brings me to my third and final point.

 I fear that there is an instrumentalisation of the impact agenda occurring. Decisions regarding the investment of institutional resources and the appointment of staff are increasingly taken with a keen eye not on the intellectual vibrancy of the project, the disruptive scholarly potential of the appointee or the need to cultivate a culture of engaged scholarship but on a crude, mechanical short-term calculation as to whether the outlay is likely to result in the requisite number of high-quality “impact case studies”.

The risk is that impact becomes the tail that wags the dog rather than a more creative endeavour through which the social sciences (re)connect with a broader society that desperately demands support and insight.

Michael Burawoy’s wonderful phrase about “talking to multiple publics in multiple ways” springs to mind, but to understand academic impact through binary concepts of success or failure – let alone through the lens of external audit mechanisms – risks falling into a trap of our own creation.

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics and founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is president of the UK’s Political Studies Association and was the Economic and Social Research Council’s Overall Impact Champion for 2018.

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