Different forms of knowledge: the arts and humanities and ‘impact’

Rethinking Policy Impact
Publication Date

When the impact agenda burst onto the stage of UK Higher Education in the run up to the 2014 new iteration of the regular official process of research quality assessment, then renamed as Research Excellence Framework (REF), it created quite the reaction among the academic community. The arts and humanities community in particular expressed strong resistance against and reservations for the so called ‘impact agenda’.

A woman wearing glasses and smiling at the camera
Professor Eleonora Belfiore

While the expectation that arts and humanities researchers should now be able to document, measure and demonstrate the impact, either social or economic, of their research was certainly a new requirement – and one that felt alien to many scholars especially in the more traditional corner of the humanities – the ‘justificatory rhetoric’ of impact had already been adopted by research funders for years. Bodies such as UUK were following suit, in the hope of making a convincing argument to defend the higher education sector from cuts in the aftermath of the 2007 financial crisis. The much critiqued 2009 report by the AHRC Leading the World: The Economic Impact of UK Arts and Humanities Research was a clear indication that its main funder had espoused the notion of impact as a proxy for value.

The report is structured around three key questions that also provide the titles of its chapters: ‘Why is arts and humanities research important?’; ‘Why should the taxpayer pay for it?’; and ‘Why fund arts and humanities research through the AHRC?’. The purpose of the report, then, was patently to ‘make the case’ for arts and humanities research funding (and secondarily for the AHRC itself).  Rhetorically, the case was framed through economic impact:

‘for every £1 spent on research by the AHRC, the nation may derive as much as £10 of immediate benefit and another £15–£20 of long-term benefit. Thus in 2006–7, the AHRC invested £60.3 million in new research, which implies immediate returns of over £616.9 million and a possible additional return over 25 years of around £1 billion’

Arts and Humanities Research Council, leading the world, 2009, p. 3

Fast tracking to the 2016 White paper Success as a Knowledge Economy shows the enduring popularity of this rhetorical approach to justifying public spending on research: ‘For every £1 spent by government on research and development, private sector productivity raises by 20p annually, in perpetuity’ (UK Gov 2016, p.17).

As a scholar of cultural policy focusing on discursive formations around rationales and justifications for state funding of the arts, these are very familiar arguments – or more accurately, these are statements of impact unsupported by explanations of the methods deployed to calculate impact, so that the claims are effectively unverifiable.

It was indeed as early as 1988 that, in British arts policy discourse, the influential report compiled by John Myerscough and entitled The Economic Importance of the Arts in Britain sowed the seeds of the ‘defensive instrumentalism’ that would dominate cultural policy rhetoric and drive attempts to justify the arts’ claims on the public purse. It still does, irrespective of the robustness of the ‘evidence’ of economic impact.

As Myerscough pointed out in the introduction to his report, a focus on impact was presented as the best possible grounds for a defence of public arts funding:

‘This was a time when central government spending was levelling off. Arguments based on their intrinsic merits and educational value were losing their potency and freshness, and the economic dimension seemed to provide fresh justification for public spending on the arts.’

John Myerscough in The Economic Importance of the Arts in Britain

What fascinated me at the time of the introduction of the research impact agenda, was the close way in which, rhetorically, it mirrored what had happened in the arts over the previous 20 years or so, but with little awareness, among key policymakers, of that. There was certainly some irony for me, as a researcher whose work critiquing the methodological limitations of impact measurement in the arts, the problems of equating impact and value and of espousing an explicitly instrumental argument to justify public funding had been funded throughout the early 2000s by the AHRC, to see the Council go right the very same path. In terms of the impact on AHRC policy of AHRC’s own funded research, there was clearly a long way to go towards evidence-based policy making in arts and humanities research!

The emergence of economic impact rhetoric as evidence of the marketisation of academic research

Predictably, there was great resistance against the impact agenda from large portions of the arts and humanities academic community, who broadly saw the emergence of economic impact rhetoric as evidence of the marketisation of academic research and the capitulation of universities to neoliberal ideology. Social impact, or impact on policy formation, was seen as less problematic. But many felt that their work either could not aspire to such impact, or that evidencing it would be challenging.

The broadening of REF impact to public engagement as a recognised pathway to impact has gone some way towards alleviating the anxieties of arts and humanities scholars, although it remains to be seen how evidence of engagement will be received and assessed once the outcome of REF2021 is announced.

From the perspective of diversity and interdisciplinarity, my concern is that a narrow focus on economic impact or on direct policy influence as the gold standard form of desirable impact might result in the unwitting oversimplification of the understanding of how research in arts and humanities moves and has an effect in the world. This is especially so as impact is likely to be diffused, to take place over time and in more circuitous ways than is suggested in the linear model of policy influence adopted by RCUK, and is allowed for in the disciplinary focus of the REF.

This blog is part of the research project Rethinking Policy Impact

A UK-wide conversation on the principles, goals and approaches that should guide the policy impact agenda in higher education.

Find out more about the Rethinking Policy Impact project

The challenge remains to find an understanding of impact that can accommodate the centrality of critique in arts and humanities scholarship, and make sense of the benefits that critical engagement with our culture and society bring in terms that both meet the needs of quality assessment and impact measurement, and resist over-simplification. How can this be achieved?

I think there is merit in referring back to the work of influential policy scholar Carol Weiss, who, in her 1977 article Research for Policy’s Sake: The Enlightenment Function of Social Research, had already pointed out that ‘government officials use research less to arrive at solutions than to orient themselves to problems’.

This conceptual, discursive model of impact, in which non-academic professional communities use research to help them think through issues and problems, to gain new ideas and different perspectives on issues, is arguably a more productive way of conceptualising the impact of arts and humanities research than crude estimation of ‘returns per pound invested’ or a narrowly instrumental focus. Weiss refers to this as the ‘enlightenment function’ of research, which impacts policy debates by way of exerting ‘conceptual’ influence.

Research impact is ultimately a collaborative effort

While the problem of how to document, evidence and assess the extent to which this enlightenment function is effectively carried out by humanities research remains, I would argue this reformulation would allow for more interdisciplinary and diverse approaches to making sense of how research impacts on societies, culture and policy making. Moreover, it lends itself to a collaborative, co-produced approach to impact measurement, where research producers and users engage in a conversation around how the formulation of policy issues, solutions and processes is affected by conceptual changes facilitated by research. Research impact is ultimately a collaborative effort, and the meeting point of academic knowledge and other forms of knowledge, be they those of policy makers, service providers, the public, or project participants.

Eleonora Belfiore is Professor at the University of Aberdeen and Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Social Inclusion and Cultural Diversity

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.