I am not the sort of Classicist who often goes on about Latin roots or tags. I promise not to write many blogs consisting of etymological lectures. But given the song-and-dance about IMPACT, which we in British universities have been told is a main goal of academic research, I thought it was worth recalling what this word actually means.
Our research is supposed to have an ‘impact’ on people, who are defined either as other boffins or the general public, depending on which bureaucrat you are talking to. In the next Research Excellence Framework assessment, twenty per cent of the points given to each academic for her or his research will be decided on the criterion of their ‘impact’.
|Greek Professor impacts the public|
The term was also used metaphorically, but almost always with a rather negative implication—you could have an impact on someone by harassing them or laying an allegation against them. These are also the implications of the term in English until very recently: so the Oxford English Dictionary in 1909 offers, in the literal sense, ‘The striker's thumb…impinges the skull of his opponent’, and in the metaphorical, the imputation of crime.
Don’t get me wrong. I have argued since decades before research ‘impact’ was dreamed up that no academic deserved a cushy lifestyle at the taxpayer’s expense if s/he was incapable of explaining to that taxpayer why their research mattered. As a result of this stance I even acquired a reputation amongst some refined classical scholars, whose research was clearly far too elevated to be understood by mere lay people, for having a ‘streak of vulgarity’. (This is an actual quotation from a 2011 anonymous AHRC peer review of the 'impact' section in a research proposal of mine; the review was not redacted before being sent to me). I think anyone whose salary is paid by other citizens should be accountable to them.
But the word ‘impact’ does not really get what I mean. I would like the general public and other academics to understand what we do and why we think it benefits life on earth. But do we really want to impinge it on them? Actually, it doesn’t matter if we don’t, since our research will be assessed on the impact criterion regardless.
|UK Classicists Training for the REF|
We clearly need to start smashing our monographs into people’s faces and hurling transistor radios tuned to Melvyn Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ at unsuspecting members of the public from our university library windows. We need to go to war on other academic departments, dispensing bullets made from squashed-up articles in History Today and Nature from our automatic rifles. Fortunately there is still time to organise this before the REF submission deadline of November 29 2013.