The dark side of the impact agenda

There has been a great deal of discussion, much of it critical, of the impact agenda in higher education and in the research excellence framework.

We have been cautioned that this agenda might prioritise lower over higher quality research if it has demonstrable social reach, that the role of ethics is unclear (so researchers might be facilitating questionable policy agendas or corporate practices) and that the impact of much valuable exploratory and theoretical work (often in the arts and humanities) is almost impossible to assess.

But thus far nobody has really explored the potential effect on individual researchers who “have impact”.

As the REF 2014 loomed on the horizon, I was asked to submit an impact case study about my research on “lad cultures” and sexual violence in higher education.

My work in this area began with my contribution to the 2010 National Union of Students report Hidden Marks: A Study of Women Students’ Experiences of Harassment, Stalking, Violence and Sexual Assault. This led to my being asked to co-author (with Isabel Young) a second report,That’s What She Said: Women Students’ Experiences of ‘Lad Culture’ in Higher Education, which was published last year. This recommended that institutions and the student movement should take action to combat the emergence of “lad culture” in higher education and its negative impact. It was widely covered in the media, and the research contributed to the decision by many students’ unions to adopt zero tolerance initiatives or launch consent campaigns, and to some institutions starting to develop more adequate sexual violence policies. I was among the academics featured at my university’s “celebrating impact” event earlier this year.

In general, I think the impact agenda is great. If they can, academics should be looking for ways their work can contribute to society. Of course this is more possible for some of us than others, and we should support those whose work is primarily exploratory or theoretical, not least because we cannot tell what future impact it might have. Nevertheless, we are incredibly privileged to work in a profession in which the public purse at least partially supports our pursuit of knowledge, and where we still have relative autonomy and a podium from which to speak. It is not unreasonable to ask us to give back.

But as it develops the impact programme, the Higher Education Funding Council for England should acknowledge that impact is not neutral. I imagine that an analysis of the REF 2014 impact case studies would find that the majority of them came from white men – not because their research is better, but because they are likely to have the social and cultural capital required to make a splash and to be taken seriously. Furthermore, in a social media age there is a price to be paid by anyone who gains a public profile – and this is especially true for women who talk about gender.

Like lots of academics, one of the ways I track my impact is through Google Alerts – the search engine emails you whenever your name appears online. However, the net has to be cast wide in order to encompass blogs, forums and other places where your research might be discussed – so this becomes a great way to stay informed about who hates your guts. Academics’ email addresses are public, too, and we are also encouraged to be on Twitter – so if someone wants to go a step further than posting a snarky comment on a forum or blog, they can send it to me direct.

I’ve been called a prude, an idiot and a man-hater, described as joyless, vapid, toxic and entitled. Comments have been made about my appearance and, as seems to be becoming inevitable for women with opinions, specifically about my genitals. These are the statements that show up in my alerts or are sent to me directly – I try to avoid looking at the free-for-all comment sections below news articles (and in doing this I am often ignoring editors’ requests that writers engage with those who comment on their work).

What’s more, I don’t get nearly as much abuse as other, higher-profile women. I’m also white, middle class and cisgendered, and married with kids – women who do not enjoy these privileges will have even more vitriol to face for daring to think for themselves in public.

As my research becomes higher impact, this state of affairs will only get worse – and I’m sure it may take an emotional toll. I’m certainly not going to be silenced by bullies. But Hefce and the higher education sector in general need to understand and acknowledge what they are asking academics to do, offer us better support, and pay particular attention to the problems faced by women in the public eye. It is harder for us to have impact in the first place – and when we do, it comes at a price.

Originally published in Times Higher Education

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Author: alisonphipps

Academic working on issues in the politics of the body - sexual violence, sex work, reproductive justice. Feminist; queer; Prince.

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