The issue of ‘impact’ appears here to stay in UK research. There has been much written about it, including by fellow OT blogger Stephen Curry here. With the draft guidelines for the REF about to be published, in which impact will also feature (in the form of case studies covering research already done whose impact is to be described in some detail, and ideally if impossibly quantified), it isn’t going to go away any time soon. My own comments on this blog have mainly dealt with impact in the form of those ‘pathways to impact’ statements required on all research council grant submissions. These, unlike the REF, deal with future aspirations rather than past accomplishments, a point neatly stated by Richard Jones in his own recent post on Impact as:
both HEFCE and RCUK want the idea of impact to have a greater influence on funding decisions. But HEFCE’s version of impact is backward looking and concerned with measurement, RCUK’s interest is forward looking and concerned with changing behaviours.
all parties – the funding agencies, scientists and publishers – are complicit in cloaking scientific research with a far greater significance than can be objectively justified. This is most obvious in the current focus on “energy” and the real danger of climate change. Governments have been persuaded to divert funding into energy research because it is a relatively inexpensive way of appearing to tackle the problem – at least in comparison with actually doing anything about it.
He goes on specifically to explore the actual outcome of making more efficient flat screen TV’s, to replace the old-fashioned CRT models. As he points out, it has become possible using the new technology to make much larger screens than ever before, and hence actually increase power consumption, far from saving it. Hence he concludes
So, if we are being really honest, an accurate summary of the “impact” of the physics-led development of display technologies is that it has enabled televisions to have a much larger power consumption – an outcome that is unlikely ever to have appeared in a funding impact statement.
Now, without doubting any of the facts he presents, I feel this is a perverse – if striking – way of looking at things. It seems to me a scientist who was trying to make more efficient devices of any type, would be justified in laying claim to that intent. That manufacturers satisfy the strange whims of customers to cover the entire length of their living rooms with flat screens so that they can follow their favourite soaps in larger than life forms, does not mean the scientist should not have set out to make more energy-efficient screens in the first place. Companies are always out to make money and will do so by any means available to them. Thus the only way round this is to alter what the consumer wants, so that the desire for energy-guzzling screens is no longer there and the market dries up. A tough challenge.
The combination of green forces, marketing mismanagement by some very large companies, and some interesting spin from the media managed to stop GM food production in its tracks within the UK (if not quite everywhere in the world), despite any – again perfectly warranted – impact claims that many plant scientists could have made about the ability of these crops to improve yields in a variety of ways. This would have been true, and even more advantageous, in many developing countries as well as the UK. GM crops are not simply about making money for companies like Monsanto, nor about destroying the Monarch butterfly; they have the potential for many positive benefits, particularly in parts of the world where production is most difficult, but ‘society’, loosely defined, has to a large extent rejected them. If the media chose to attack large screen TV’s, and the green party joined in their vilification, no doubt something could be done to cut energy consumption per household due to their use. But the fact that the research has been done to make them more efficient stands as a useful contribution in any case.
Of course Mark is right that many of these impact statements will make claims of dubious validity, and often the writer will be doing this with great cynicism, knowing that what is written is either over-the-top or stretching a point. That in itself may cause little damage, and I optimistically would still like to believe that the statements serve a useful purpose in encouraging a little thought about what the ultimate aims and outputs, broadly interpreted, of the work might be. (I also, as I have alluded to before, believe there is far more that could and should be included in these statements beyond what might loosely be termed ‘economic impact’.) I actually think it is the press releases associated with completion of the work that are far more misleading, in ways that quite often can be laid directly at the door of the university’s press team/communications office because they are always keen to maximise the effect of any story, in ways that may make the PI feel distinctly uncomfortable. Most PI’s will, possibly naively, think a little over-hyping may not matter; and in general it may not. Nevertheless, it is this effect that leads to the phenomenal number of ‘cures’ for cancer (or insert your alternative disease of choice here) university scientists apparently manage to find, which somehow never quite turn up at the local hospital.
However, let me return to the issue of climate change that provoked Mark Blamire’s diatribe against flat screen technology. It is not the impact statements that are or are not going to change the world, or even let the government off the hook of doing anything. What is needed is to change attitudes in ways that, very very briefly, it looked like the Stern Review might do. This week’s Guardian highlighted a different way a (US) climate scientist is setting about this, notably taking direct action.
[James} Hansen is the climate scientist's climate scientist. He has testified about the issue in front of Congress, but has had enough of the standard government response – "greenwash", he calls it. Last month, Hansen issued an uncompromising plea for Americans to involve themselves with civil unrest over climate change. "We want you to consider doing something hard – coming to Washington in the hottest and stickiest weeks of the summer and engaging in civil disobedience that will likely get you arrested," he says in a letter on grist.org.
So maybe the corollary to Mark’s complaint is that our impact statements should read
I am going to spend each weekend in the second year of the grant participating in civil disobedience to draw attention to the dangers of the flat screen technology, and hence am likely to be in prison for the third year.
Or perhaps we need to do a better job of working in public engagement to encourage people not to want to buy gadgets with unnecessarily high energy consumption, and to indulge ourselves with more communication via skype (I don’t suppose anyone put that in their impact statement) to remove the need for gadding round the world. It is not the impact statements that will make a difference in this case, but other ways in which we choose to operate as scientists.