Research Impact as a framing contest: is impact an essentially contested concept?

Stream: Panel 23 - Public Policy & Social Justice: Higher Education – Policy, Performance and Research Impacts
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 11.30 am – 1.00 pm


What measures should be deployed in relation to the accountability, relevance, and utility of publicly funded research projects? These debates have a long history. The traditional tension has been between researcher-driven perspectives (invoking a defence of basic or blue-sky research) and external stakeholder-driven perspectives (emphasizing the current priorities of funding agencies, of industry partners, and generic concerns about relevance and utilisation). But what is the problem we are trying to solve? Improving research quality? Improving accountability for public expenditures? Improving the profitability of businesses? Improving national standing in international league tables that measure research commercialization and economic productivity? In recent years the playing field (at least in several Anglo-liberal-democracies) has tilted strongly toward economic and commercial criteria, and shifted a higher proportion of public research funding for projects that promise economic returns. Some publicly funded research schemes give priority to projects aimed at boosting national economic growth and productivity, and some encourage co-investment by business. Social science and humanities research generally takes a backseat role in such schemes. This paper argues that the assumptions underlying the current trends in research funding need closer inspection. The paper focuses on how the problems are framed, how the solutions are elaborated, and how the outcomes are measured. If ‘impact’ is the answer, what was the question? And what forms of ‘impact’ are worthy of attention for the social sciences?


Brian Head (Presenter), University of Queensland
Brian Head is Professor of Policy and Evaluation at the University of Queensland; he holds a joint appointment in the Institute for Social Science Research and the School of Political Science & International Studies.