Academics applying for research funding have expressed their concern at feeling the need to exaggerate and embellish the possible future impact of their work.
In a series of interviews with senior academics in the UK and Australia for our new study, several told us that the process of writing statements about the imagined future impact of their research could feel like the creation of "falsehoods" and "untruths", particularly when the impact was not immediately apparent.
Others described predictions that were being made about the kind of impact research would have on the general public as "charades" and "illusions", "virtually meaningless", or "made up stories". This was particularly the case for those working on arguably less socially applicable areas, such as theoretical physics, aesthetics or literary theory.
Researchers working on fundamental aspects of human functioning, for example, might be tempted to describe how their research could benefit society by improving the public’s happiness levels or quality of life. In reality, such a causal relationship may be far more complicated.
In the UK, academics are frequently asked to provide evidence for the impact of their research on the wider society outside of academia. It is now mandatory for all applications for funding from UK research councils to incorporate a section on the predicted impact of the research. This intensified with the inclusion of 'impact' as one of the criteria under the Research Exercise Framework 2014, an exercise used to judge the quality of the UK’s research.
A similar focus on impact has occurred in Australian universities. The Australian Research Council also requires that funding applicants provide a short impact statement as a part of their research proposals.
There is also ongoing consultation about impact as a new feature in Australia’s own national research evaluation exercise, the Excellence Research Australia in 2018.
In the UK the expectation that researchers should demonstrate the potential impact of research in funding applications has provoked the ire of many academics. They have questioned the efficiency of this new feature of their funding contract, seeing it as a box-ticking exercise to prove the 'public value' of research which has the potential to constrict the freedom to research new knowledge for its own sake.
We were curious to find out how researchers have responded to the requirement to predict their impact, particularly at a time when research funding is both scarce and massively competitive.
We interviewed both authors and reviewers of impact statements drawn from the arts and humanities, social sciences, natural and life sciences and physical sciences, based at two research intensive and research elite institutions in the UK and Australia.
We found a common perception that if the impact was not immediately apparent it was almost inevitable to have to inflate and embellish claims about how much impact a piece of work would have in order to secure funding.
While many agreed that their research ought to be communicated in order to make a difference and contribute to the public good, many disagreed with the way funders conceptualise and ask for 'impact' to be predicted in funding applications. They suggested that, where impact was not immediately obvious, a kind of 'impact-sensationalism' was both a necessary and justifiable way of trying to secure research funding. Some tacitly felt this was a necessary evil and a means to an end.
One Australian professor, commented:
"If you can find me a single academic who hasn’t had to bullsh*t or bluff or lie or embellish in order to get grants, then I will find you an academic who is in trouble with his Head of Department. If you don’t play the game, you don’t do well by your university. So anyone that’s so ethical that they won’t bend the rules in order to play the game is going to be in trouble, which is deplorable."
Another interviewee, a UK professor, stated that over-claiming was an unfortunate but integral aspect of the grant-writing process:
"Would I believe it? No. Would it help me get the money? Yes."
As many critics have argued, being asked to imagine future impact could be said to "fly in the face of scientific practice". No surprise, then, that the accuracy of impact predictions may be as uncertain as a shot in the dark.
Integrity under threat?
Some of the academics we interviewed described the temptation to sensationalise narratives of impact with a sense of moral conflict.
In the UK and Australia’s very competitive higher education markets, where performance is in the spotlight, there is increasing pressure for academics to be seen to prioritise demands from their universities to raise research money.
But as our research shows, this could arguably be one of the most difficult challenges to an academics’ sense of professional integrity and moral fabric.
By sensationalising the future impact of their research, academics are merely displaying a natural survival instinct. Yet the fact that they feel they have to embellish their predictions, shows that as the contours of academic practice continue to shift, funders' concepts of impact remains ever problematic.