In 2010, the Higher Education Funding Council conducted a pilot exercise which aimed to test the feasibility of both assessing the social and economic impact of academic research and using this assessment to evaluate researchers and research institutions across the UK. The key points from the executive summary of the exercise are as follows:
In the REF there will be an explicit element to assess the ‘impact’ arising from excellent research, alongside the ‘outputs’ and ‘environment’ elements.
The assessment of impact will be based on expert review of case studies submitted by higher education institutions. Case studies may include any social, economic or cultural impact or benefit beyond academia that has taken place during the assessment period, and was underpinned by excellent research produced by the submitting institution within a given timeframe. Submissions will also include information about how the unit has supported and enabled impact during the assessment period.
A weighting of 25 per cent for impact would give due recognition to the economic and social benefits of excellent research. However, given that the impact assessment in the 2014 REF will still be developmental, the weighting of impact in the first exercise will be reduced to 20 per cent, with the intention of increasing this in subsequent exercises.
The assessment of research outputs will account for 65 per cent, and environment will account for 15 per cent, of the overall assessment outcomes in the 2014 REF. These weightings will apply to all units of assessment.
Put simply: The category of “impact” will play a new role in assessing research quality and assigning resources to universities in the UK. Researchers have been asked to think creatively about impact, to create impacts, to show impacts, to make impact and make it visible.
But: what is impact? And what does this word mean for the Humanities, where impacts might be invisible or economically unsound?
From the OED:
Pronunciation: /ˈɪmpækt/Etymology: < Latin type *impact-us n., < participial stem of impingĕre to impinge v.
a. The act of impinging; the striking of one body against another; collision. Chiefly in Dynamics, in reference to momentum.
b. fig. Now commonly the effective action of one thing or person upon another; the effect of such action; influence; impression. Esp. in. phr. to make an impact (on).
A few thoughts on the concrete before we get to the figures of influence:
Impact is a word that forces us to consider time. How do we plan for impact? How do we plan for that which emerges unannounced and without warning? In the catastrophe of a car crash, an electrocuted elephant, a knife thrust toward the camera. Or the unexpected arrival of understanding. How do we plan for that which is defined by the traces it leaves behind, by its impressions? How do we work towards something that exists in the present and in the past, but cannot furnish a future guarantee without becoming something else altogether? The always already known. The repetition under control. The expected revelation that we can refuse or protect ourselves against.
As teachers and scholars, perhaps the most we can do is hope for impact. Or, perhaps we should take a note from Lyotard and hope for nothing. Hope for figures in-between the always-already-known of discourse and practice, and leave space for the never-before-thought. The surprise of an event in the order of the everyday. The unplanned and unprofitable.
Incidentally, impact belongs to the language of early cinema and is perhaps what compels me to linger here. The time of early cinema is imperfect (and, here, I gather up the resonances of the imparfait, the ongoing, becoming, and the imprecise). Those who made it could not shape it or anticipate its content. As early film historians, we cannot restore it, no matter how many archival trips or historical digs we manage to get funded in the name of preservative obsessions. Early cinema is not a cinema of whole bodies and stories. But of right now and the instant of impact.
The problem, of course, is that the now of early cinema becomes an historical then. It impacted, left a trace, and disappeared. We are only ever working with fragments and yawning gaps. For some, this is the theoretical appeal. For others, this is the structural limitation and the catalyst to start using these materials in more valuable, profitable ways. For the few who are placing bets on future impacts and impressions, early cinema is ready for the taking and making more useful. But, as Derrida points out, you can’t begin this process of taking without also beginning a process of unethical revision, annihilation, or forgetting.