In the pell-mell pursuit of impact we have neglected to do some first order thinking on what precisely we mean by the term. Underlying our accountability culture’s focus on increasing impact is a simple assumption: impact = good, great impact = better. It is time that we stand back and review the concept. For once considered, the pursuit of impact raises as many problems as it seems to solve. It is time for an epistemology and an ethics of impact. This point can be framed in a number of ways.
To begin with, we must raise the question of harmful impacts—what are sometime called grimpacts. A moment’s reflection is enough to show the vacuity of the idea that impacts are always beneficial. Take the case of the natural environment: it is clear that in any number of cases (climate change, the loss of biodiversity) humanity is having both too many and too severe of impacts. In the future, progress in the environmental realm will often consist of lessening, eliminating, or even reversing our impact. This raises the possibility of pursuing the goal of what might be called negative impact, where the anticipated impacts of research consist of removing previous impacts.