Making Impact Plans make more impact

I’m in the midst of putting together a grant application at the moment, to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Part of this involves a document describing the activities I plan to undertake in order to fully realise the broader societal impact of my work. Given the fuss that UK academics have made regarding the instigation of this requirement across all UK RCs a couple of years ago – long enough, indeed, for two name changes already, from ‘Knowledge Exchange Plan’ to ‘Impact Plan’ to ‘Pathways to Impact’ – it was something of a surprise to read in Nature that the NSF new Impact scheme is the first of its kind. Now personally, I have no objection to being asked about the wider impact of my work, even though it’s actually quite hard to demonstrate any kind of economic benefit (which ultimately is what the RCs are after) deriving from the kind of biodiversity research I do. Actually, it’s a positive thing to think about the ways in which one’s idle musings may actually be of some use to someone else. And particularly in this recession, with the looming presence of an austerity budget here towards the end of this month, it’s simply not realistic to expect the tax payer to fund me to sit and think, regardless of how culturally sophisticated that would make us as a nation.

So broadly, I’m in favour of impact activities, especially as they actually offer the chance of more money, to fund some fun stuff – in my field, generally initiatives in web-based data-sharing, or stakeholder involvement, but also potentially seeding spin-out companies, partnerships with industry, and so on.

The issue I have is in the way that impact has crept into the assessment process of responsive mode (i.e. ‘blue skies’) funding proposals. For example, NERC initially stated quite categorically that – providing they reached a certain minimum standard – Impact Plans would have no bearing on the decision to fund research, which would be entirely based on the scientific excellence of the main proposal.

Of course, although that may have been the order from on high, it is not what happened in the panel meetings convened to make funding decisions. These panels have a really tough job assessing an increasing number of proposals with a limited pot of money. Clearly, any additional means that they can find to separate the funded from the also-rans will be used. And given that they (and all reviewers of the grant proposals) had full access to the impact plans, these quickly became an additional way of ranking proposals. Great science, crap impact? Sorry, we’ll give the money to the proposal with great science and great impact.

NERC now state:

Research grant proposals will continue to be assessed on science excellence. Pathways to impact will be included for assessment as part of the usual review process and will be considered as a secondary criterion alongside risk/reward and cost effectiveness.

At least this is out in the open now, and we know where we stand. The remaining problem lies with how these plans are assessed – in the standard review process, and by scientists who do not necessarily (in fact, almost certainly do not) have any expertise in matters of ‘impact’, leading to potential frustration if your proposal happens to land on the desk of someone with a different view of impact from yourself.

So here’s my proposition. No impact plan to be submitted with any responsive mode grant proposal. Then, should your proposal be selected for funding, a condition of receiving the money is that you submit a formal ‘pathways to impact’ application which must meet a certain standard. Because the field would be so much smaller at this stage, these plans could be reviewed by a smaller panel of experts in the field of knowledge exchange and impact. This would save regular reviewers time. It would also, I believe, drive up the standard of impact activities, because if you already know you’re getting funding, but that you could get some extra money for a top impact plan, the incentive is there to make a really good job of writing it.

Just an idea, but I’ve yet to come up with a downside.