The Research Impact Handbook by Mark Reed – Book Review

From the LSE Impact blog, a complementary attempt to codify best practices for achieving impact:

Drawing on a range of evidence-based principles that underpin impact delivery, The Research Impact Handbook by Mark Reed aims to equip researchers with the skills and confidence needed to embed impact in their own research. 
Steven Hill, Head of Research Policy at HEFCE, finds the text a valuable contribution and welcomes the mixture of theoretical and practical approaches for researchers to understand and address the barriers (and anxiety) around stepping into the impact world.


Making the leap from research to impact

Another instance of the gap between knowledge production and knowledge use, and what some federal funding agencies in the US are doing about it.

Eli Berman, a professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego, does work that many would see as vitally important: He analyzes global trouble spots in the hopes of keeping the country out of wars.


The job, basically, is to “explain to the federal government what to do with the research that they spent money on,” Mr. Berman said. But, he said of his mission, “it’s dark and cold and lonely, because it really falls between the cracks.”

Source: How Fresh Funding Structures Could Support Research With Impact – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Serendipity, redux

I sympathize with pleas like this one for academics to resist the pressures of the impact agenda. Serendipity clearly is a factor in achieving influence, and no doubt there are many historical examples of academic work that has achieved significant impact without its progenitors having any intention of doing so.

But is it not the case that serendipity is the only factor, and I question whether it is even the most important one. A fellow field-oriented philosopher, Paul B. Thompson, describes his style of philosophizing as “occasional,” inspired by the practice of occasional poetry. Creativity is often an occasional phenomenon, and there is a great deal of serendipity to when, where, and how such occasions arise. But it is equally true that rising to those occasions requires preparation, attentiveness to the possibility of a fruitful occasions arising, and not only the kind of serendipity that we call being in the right place at the right time – or, in the case of academics, having produced the right thing for the right future time.

Thinking through how academics should respond to neoliberal governance regimes and demands for impact is important. But it’s easy to confuse calls for accountability with an impossible demand for predictive accuracy. I do not see why the following point should be interpreted as sufficient reason to believe that one would have greater impact remaining inside the academy than venturing outside of it:

I see the value in recovering colonial writers who are not readily remembered. But I realise that the public could think the authors I study are unread for a reason. To them, knowing how white men published poems in 1790s Bombay seems irrelevant.

I could explain that my research builds on themes that are important to our modern society, such as the possibilities or failures of cross-cultural dialogue, the relationship between corporations and social communities and the sharp tongue of satire in political discourse.

But as a scholar, I can’t predict which, if any, of these themes will be influential in the coming decades. Engaging the public is important, but we should not assume that what will be integral to future society is the same as what can be made popular or immediately understandable now.

If there is equal uncertainty about what will be impactful on both sides of the ivory tower, then what reason is there for eschewing efforts to be public scholars, to try cultivating broader audiences, or to translate the value of academic work into other societal ‘languages’? People outside of the academy may not be interested in your work, after all. But, also, they just might be.



Escape Velocity 2

Philosophers have believed they were trying to break free from the chains of an abstract discourse and that talking about real-world issues through applied philosophy would be enough fuel to achieve escape velocity. But the gravitational pull holding them back was institutional rather than discursive in nature. Hale has a point about the lack of tools; but the problem hasn’t been with the content of philosophical thought or its lack of a toolish nature. It wasn’t about what has been said, but to whom they have been speaking.

The institution holding them back was the discipline-based university. Disciplines do a great job of developing new knowledge. But they do a poor job at transmitting that knowledge to society. Indeed, the word ‘applied’ forms part of the problem, because it indicates that the philosopher first does the intellectual work in specialized journals for one’s disciplinary peers. Afterward that work is supposedly ‘applied’ to society as a finished product. The passive voice is intentional here, because there is no account of who does the applying or how. The approach is, as the phrase goes, top-down. Theory is spread over a case like veneer over a surface.

Book Review @NYTimes

Adam Briggle–our good friend and colleague–gets a nice review of his latest book from the New York TimesReally glad to see this. Many reviews closer to Texas and to PetroDollars totally mischaracterized this important book.

In his investigation of what determines people’s attitudes toward progress and technology, Briggle makes an illuminating distinction between “precautionaries” and “proactionaries”: “Precautionaries look down to our roots in the animal kingdom. Proactionaries look up to our future in the stars.” Precautionaries identify with the creatures, fragile and finite, and they moderate their ambitions and appetites accordingly. Proactionaries identify with the immeasurably energetic stars: “For the proactionary, ‘enough’ is a dirty word.” But animals and stars are hard to mobilize; politically they are quietists. When it comes to policy, both the animal-minded and the star-minded are forced to identify with people, as they’re the ones who might see your logo, stop the pickup and vote Yes or No.

Source: ‘A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking,’ by Adam Briggle – The New York Times

Supply-side philosophy

Many with whom we have been in dialog point us toward bioethics as a field that escapes our criticism. And bioethics offers an interesting case.

Bioethicists often work in the field with stakeholders from other disciplines and various walks of society. But bioethics didn’t so much propel itself out of the gravitational forces of disciplinarity as it was pulled out into space (that is, society) by doctors, patients, hospitals, and scientists who demanded help with their problems.

Bioethics exposes the importance of the demand-side within applied philosophy. People out in the world recognized a conceptual space that was philosophical (or at least ethical) in nature, and helped to clear a social space where this new creature, the bioethicist, could take root and speak with some measure of authority.

Still, this has not been the case for other types of applied philosophy. In the main they have practiced a kind of supply-side philosophy, trying to convince stakeholders to buy the notion that their problems have philosophical dimensions. On endangered species, for example, people have not reached down asking for help. Rather, they saw the issue as economic, political, ecological, and/or biological in nature. No ready-made space was carved out for the philosopher. And environmental philosophers, lacking (with a few exceptions) that tug from the beyond, have fallen back to disciplinary ground. It’s no wonder, then, that (for instance) environmental ethics has not matched the success of bioethics.

Never touching ground

In the introduction to the 2009 special issue of the Journal of Applied Philosophy Archard and Mendus speak of the recent expansion of applied philosophy:

in 2009 the philosophical lens has widened somewhat and all our contributors are concerned not simply with the application of philosophy to practical problems (though they are of course concerned with that), but also with the prior question of what it means to apply philosophy to practical problems.

But somehow the discussion never touches ground. Authors skirt the edges of the problem – e.g., Buchanan raises questions about what he calls the ‘Commission Paradigm’ of applied philosophy, and Archard speaks of his “attachment to a version of what is known as ‘bottom up’ applied philosophy, one that starts from the facts of the real world.” But this turns out to be a very abstract form of real world. The articles lack any account of anyone’s actual engagement in the particular problems of people in real time. Nor is there any reflection on how or to what degree the profession’s standards of rigor would need to adapt to practical exigencies, or how actual engagement would affect academic standards for tenure and promotion.

Instead of talking about abstract notions of free will in peer-reviewed journals, applied philosophers talk about concrete problems of, say, euthanasia or endangered species. But they still talk in the pages of peer-reviewed journals, and without including an account of how these insights are supposed to be taken up by people outside the academy. Absent is any reflection about how to actually get involved with the stakeholders in particular policy processes, how to effectively interject insights into conversations, or how to track the impacts of one’s efforts.

People can cavil with the numbers from our survey, and certainly another reckoning could find a higher (or lower) percentage of essays that report some type of interaction with non-disciplinary audiences. But double or triple the number and you still have a shocking lack of reflexivity about broader impacts. Where are the stories about how philosophy must change when its audience changes – about how to do philosophy when you leave the armchair and enter the fray?

Applied diffusion?

At the core of the applied model of scholarship is a faith in the passive diffusion model of knowledge transfer whereby peer-reviewed articles somehow lead to societal benefits. Insights diffuse like a concentrated gas. Or perhaps like the economic benefits of the rich are supposed to trickle down to others. It’s just this kind of hand-waving nonchalance that precipitated the accountability culture now taking hold of the academy. A faith-based impact story just won’t do.

The applied philosophy literature is full of insights about practical problems. But in our survey of the literature we find essentially no accounts of how a philosopher is supposed to ensure that these insights have an impact. It’s a bias rooted in the discipline: one has exhausted one’s intellectual task and professional obligation when one deposits a peer-reviewed publication in a reservoir of knowledge. Whether and how that knowledge gets used…well, who can say?

On the impact of impact

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.

Source: On the Impact of ‘Impact’ | Blog | The Sociological Review

A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking

Adam Briggle brings us to town hall debates and neighborhood meetings where citizens wrestle with issues few fully understand. Is fracking safe? How does it affect the local economy? Why are bakeries prohibited in neighborhoods while gas wells are permitted next to playgrounds? In his quest for answers Briggle meets people like Cathy McMullen. Her neighbors’ cows asphyxiated after drinking fracking fluids, and her orchard was razed to make way for a pipeline. Cathy did not consent to drilling, but those who profited lived far out of harm’s way.

Briggle’s first instinct was to think about fracking—deeply. Drawing on philosophers from Socrates to Kant, but also on conversations with engineers, legislators, and industry representatives, he develops a simple theory to evaluate fracking: we should give those at risk to harm a stake in the decisions we make, and we should monitor for and correct any problems that arise. Finding this regulatory process short-circuited, with government and industry alike turning a blind eye to symptoms like earthquakes and nosebleeds, Briggle decides to take action.

Source: A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking | W. W. Norton & Company

Philosophy Policy

We believe that it’s time for a ‘philosophy policy’ or humanities policy analogous to science policy. Indeed, we believe that this is already beginning to germinate. While Mode 1 philosophy–traditional disciplinary research–is still the reigning orthodoxy, there is a growing countermovement within the ranks of philosophers, sometimes lumped under the title of “public philosophy.” We call our own version of this Mode 2 work “field philosophy.” There are a number of similar approaches in areas such as environmental justice, critical race theory, feminism, and bioethics that we recognize as allies. We support and celebrate these diverse approaches to Mode 2 philosophizing. But we believe that the lack of thought given to the institutional dimensions of philosophizing has limited the effectiveness of this work. A new philosophical practice, where philosophers work in real time with a variety of audiences and stakeholders, will lead to new theoretical forms of philosophy – once we break the stranglehold that disciplinary norms have upon the profession. #SocratesTenured

Philosophy and Policy Studies

Disciplinary scholarship must continue to play a central place in philosophy.

But this needs to be complemented by an equal focus on work that is socially engaged. Not commentary about societal problems, but rather present in the field, engaged in an ongoing, day-to-day fashion with non-philosophers. In part this is simply a matter of recognizing a new reality: society is demanding that academics demonstrate their broader relevance.

Still, turning philosophy toward practical relevance will not be easy. It will require some serious philosophical thought – as well as the development of better rhetorical chops. Toward that end, it’s instructive to compare notes with the field of policy studies. Policy studies have been a blind spot for philosophy. Philosophers often do not even know of its existence as a field of study. And when so apprised they often dismiss its concerns as having already been addressed by social and political philosophy, or as merely consisting of ‘activism’. This is a mistake. Policy studies have carved out a crucial niche in the academy, concerned with how decisions are made and how knowledge is taken up (or not) in the making of policy. The success of philosophy at becoming more socially engaged will in part turn on integrating the insights of policy studies into its worldview.

Steve Fuller on the Role of Impact

Colleague Steve Fuller describes our philosophy of impact project in a recent publication: Value for Money in Academic Research: the Role of Impact.

In this article , I write as the UK partner of an exploratory project funded by the US National Science Foundation to critically evaluate current approaches to the broader ‘impacts’ of research. Our aim is to develop an agenda for understanding both the ‘how’ and ‘how much’ of the impact that humanistic, scientific and technical research has on societal well-being.  By the time of our capstone Washington workshop in February 2016, we should be able to address systematically the bottom-line question of all research funding policy: What counts as ‘value for money’?

In this context, the UK is seen as the world’s laboratory for testing alternative approaches to research policy, most notably through iterations of what is now called the ‘Research Excellence Framework’.