The evolution of ‘research impact’

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


Attempts to evaluate both research ‘quality’ and the academic and non-academic ‘impact’ of academic research can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s. These early efforts had emerged largely in response to political and economic pressures, but also in response to concerns from within the scientific community itself over the relevance of science to society. The ‘impact agenda’ in the UK was given more focus by the 1993 Cabinet Office White Paper Realising our Potential, which for the first time explicitly linked academic research to economic growth. However, it was not until 2008-09 that the UK announced a formal intention to assess research ‘impact’, when it was included as a component in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and thus became linked directly to block funding. The REF 2014 assessment generated 7000 ‘impact’ case studies. While perhaps most advanced in the UK, a focus on demonstrating research impact has become pervasive internationally. Several national governments have been developing policies and processes, but not necessarily evaluation exercises, regarding academic research and broader societal impact – these include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands, and the USA. Broader parallel developments that appear to mutually reinforce a concern with ‘impact’ include the increasing and global marketisation of higher education, and a renewed interest in the concept of evidence-based policy making and performance evaluation. This paper will trace the evolution of ‘impact’ from the 1970s to the present day and explore the origins of and assumptions underlying attempts to define and measure research impact.


Michele Ferguson (Presenter), University of Queensland
Michele Ferguson is a Research Associate at the University of Queensland in an ARC Discovery team examining the role of social sciences in tackling complex problems; she is also undertaking a PhD on the theory and practice of research impacts.