Sunday 29 April 2012

On Having an Impact

Asteroid Impact
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 Latin word impactus is the passive participle of the transitive verb impingo ‘I impinge something on something else’, and has a violent resonance. If you were an ancient Roman, you used the term impactus to describe what happened to your fist if you smashed it in someone’s face (Plautus Rudens 3.4.5), to thick fetters when they were welded onto a slave’s limbs before he was sent down the mines (Plautus Captivi 3.5.76), to a stone which you hurled at someone you despised (Phaedrus 3.5.7) or to soldiers forced by superior military force backwards onto earthworks (Tacitus Hist. 2.41).

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.

Roman Fist-Fighter
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.

1 comment:


    Brilliant essay, Edith!

    Although the effect is too weak to register on the Richter Scale, one does notice that the noun "impact" has been gradually displacing the less shrill "effect" and that the (rather inelegant) verb "to impact" has been nosing out "to affect" or "to influence."

    And we know what/who is behind this semiotic shift: press-speak and advert-babble, the same semiological forces that have transformed "solution," conversation" and countless other innocent words into trendy buzzwords.

    Of course all scholars and scientists should be willing and able to explain the meaning and relevance of their research to the general public (whether or not their research is funded by the general public).

    But this certainly does not mean ramming their raw scientific/scholarly publications -- written for uptake by fellow-researchers -- down the general public's throats, no matter how much researchers may yearn for more people to take notice of their work, and no matter how draconian the insistence of their employers, funders, evaluators and minders that they provide evidence that the public's throat has been impacted.

    Surely the rational route is to explain to the general public not only the meaning and relevance of their research, but also that the way to ensure that the benefits to humankind of humankind's ongoing contributions to learnèd inquiry are realised is to ensure that they are accessible to their intended users: fellow-researchers. Many different measures of their effects and influence on research itself can then be used to estimate (and credit, and reward) their "impact."