The research impact agenda: Defining, demonstrating and defending the value of the social sciences

Michele Ferguson, The University of Queensland

Simon Bastow, Patrick Dunleavy and Jane Tinkler The Impact of the Social Sciences: How Academics and Their Research Make a Difference, London, Sage Publications Ltd, 2014 (344 pp). ISBN 9-78144627-510-8 (paperback) RRP $48.99.

In the lead-up to the 2013 Australian federal election, Liberal backbencher Jamie Briggs incensed the research community when he released a statement vowing that the Coalition, if elected to government, would end the waste of taxpayer dollars by auditing ‘increasingly ridiculous research grants and reprioritising funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC) to deliver funds to where they’re really needed’, such as medical research. The statement singled out four humanities-based ARC-funded projects as examples of grants that ‘do little, if anything, to advance Australians research needs and funding priorities’ (Briggs 2013).

The statement left both scientists and social scientists nervous—not for the first time—about political influence over the direction of research funding. It also ignited renewed debate about the value, nature and role of research. While researchers and research funding agencies understand that governments have a legitimate need to prioritise spending of taxpayer dollars, there are increasing expectations that publicly-funded research should have ‘impact’ beyond academia, and yield demonstrable and direct economic, environmental and social benefits. Articulated rather more crudely by Briggs, these expectations, and an accompanying focus on encouraging research engagement and collaboration, underpin the ‘impact agenda’.

The birth of the impact agenda is generally traced back to a 1993 UK White Paper, Realising Our Potential (Office of Science and Technology 1993). In contrast to previous assumptions that publicly-funded basic research, often driven by curiosity, would eventually benefit the economy and society, the paper proposed that research should more directly contribute to economic growth and be planned for end uses. The utilitarian ideas expounded in the paper are evident in current research frameworks and policies and in funding allocation arrangements in both the United Kingdom and Australia. These are based on a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-influenced narrative that privileges certain types of research over others—those that produce commercialisable and patentable innovation, service the knowledge-economy, and make nations more internationally competitive (Macintyre 2011). Research councils have been increasingly required to ensure that the research they fund is more closely related to the needs of ‘users’ in industry and elsewhere and aligned with national strategic research priorities (Martin 2011; Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education 2013).

There are sound moral, ethical and financial arguments that publicly-funded academics should use their training and activities for the good of society. However, academics already under pressure to ‘publish or perish’ are increasingly expected to ‘do it all’: achieve high academic impacts, bring in funding, and have a strong external orientation resulting in visible external impacts (Oliver 2014). And they are judged on these outputs in increasingly sophisticated and complex research assessment mechanisms, such as the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise, and the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF). Measuring research output, quality and impact is not just about accountability for public investment or providing benchmarking data; the assessment outcomes also directly impact on the funding of grants, competition for posts and promotion.

Expecting every piece of research to have direct and obvious benefits is unrealistic.

Consequently, the impact agenda has significant potential to influence how institutions and academics prioritise their work. There is a risk that current research funding policies, in the pursuit of short-term economic impact, may encourage a devaluation of basic research, and result in decisions to abandon, overlook or ignore research that may not yield immediate payoffs or solve concrete problems (Faust 2010). Expecting every piece of research to have direct and obvious benefits is unrealistic, not least because economic, political and social needs and priorities constantly change and cannot be accurately predicted in advance.

Narrow, simplistic concepts of academic and external impact fail to capture the foundational, incremental and replicating nature of much research. Exercises such as the REF have highlighted the multiple challenges in producing and measuring evidence of something as nebulous as impact (Field 2013). Before attempting to assess research performance, it is vital to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the diverse processes and pathways through which academic activities and research currently contribute to broader societal outcomes, and a greater, more nuanced range of methods with which to measure these contributions (Oliver 2014).


These concerns have particular resonance in the social sciences, which produce outputs that are cumulative, diffuse and conceptual, rather than directly tangible. This argument is the central theme of a new book by Simon Bastow, Patrick Dunleavy and Jane Tinkler from the London School of Economics (LSE) Public Policy Group: The Impact of the Social Sciences: How Academics and Their Research Make a Difference. They claim that the social sciences play a key and more integrated role in contemporary knowledge development that is under-appreciated, both by other disciplines within universities and by observers outside academia. This is because the processes involved in how social science research influences wider decision-making have been relatively little studied in systematic ways. The book is ‘an attempt to redress this past neglect and to re-explain the distinctive and yet more subtle ways in which the contemporary social sciences now shape and inform human development’ (p. 2).

One problem is that external impacts of the social sciences have been under-valued because of misleading attempts to evaluate these impacts based on STEM-specific archetypes and limited ideas of what ‘real influence’ entails (p. 30). This problem persists in the current REF 2014 exercise in the United Kingdom. That framework allocates 80 per cent of the total assessment to peer evaluation of the quality of academic research and the vitality of the research environment, and twenty per cent to case studies demonstrating research ‘reach’ (how widely the impact has been felt) and ‘significance’ (how much difference was made to the non-academic beneficiaries). The external impact measures are expected to become more highly weighted in future. For the purposes of the REF, impact is defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’ (Research Excellence Framework 2011). Universities must detail the key findings of research and the impacts generated by those findings, but they must also demonstrate the pathways between the two.

The problems and disadvantages for the social sciences in demonstrating impact are multi-faceted. Unlike the STEM disciplines, which produce technologies and products, and the humanities, which produce artefacts, outputs from the social sciences are primarily conceptual not instrumental—ideas and information that are harder to commercialise or patent (p. 24). The social sciences predominantly achieve external impacts by influencing people to think about things in a different, more precisely reasoned and better informed way. No social science produces immutable laws that once established remain unchanged, and social processes operate in complex, multi-causal environments (p. xii).

Outputs from the social sciences are primarily conceptual not instrumental.

The value of social science expertise in external realms is also less linked to specific projects or pieces of research (p. 26). Even in policy debates, where a great deal of the external influence of the social sciences is concentrated, there are overstated or over-simplified claims about what should count as ‘impact’, and given the multi-causal processes in policy making, it is very hard for researchers to demonstrate any distinct or individual influence on policy making, still less linked to individual research projects (p. 170).

As a result of these features, social scientific research processes tend to be collective in nature and cumulative but diffuse in impact, largely missing the ‘breakthrough’ discoveries or ‘lone genius’ insights on which public images of the physical sciences and technological disciplines still focus (p. 255). Given this, it is particularly important to provide a more accurate picture of the relationships between what social scientists do, the factors that determine impact and the nature of impacts both within academia and externally.


Based on a three-year research study of the impact of 370 UK-based social science and STEM academics on business, government and civil society sectors and the public, the book presents a comprehensive analysis of how academic research in the social sciences achieves public policy impacts, contributes to economic prosperity, and informs public understanding of policy issues as well as economic and social changes in a rapidly developing digital age.

Avoiding a focus on any single disciplinary area, the authors adopted a ‘broad-front’ approach in mapping, for the first time, the size and scale of the social sciences and their influence across all sectors. They estimate that between 30 to 40 per cent of all UK university research takes place in the social sciences (p. 292). Drawing on research from Cambridge Econometrics, they estimate that the sector contributes approximately £24.3 billion a year to the UK’s economy—£4.3 billion directly from the value of social sciences work being done in universities, and the remaining £19.4 billion from outside academia, with work mainly related to government and finance (p. 14). This analysis shows that, in the United Kingdom, around one worker in every 200 has a job in business, government or civil society where they follow, translate, break down and mediate social science research in ways that make it applicable and valuable for their organisation. The fact that businesses, government agencies and civil society bodies make significant investments in mediating social science research provides strong prima facie evidence for its social value (p. 269).

Demonstrating this contribution to the economy is particularly timely in the context of the REF exercise underway in 2014, when for the first time, twenty per cent of the research-related government funding to universities is based on the impact outcomes. The results set out above strengthen the case that the social sciences deserve far more than their current share of funding—in the United Kingdom, as in Australia, the social sciences are the ‘poor relation’ of STEM, in terms of funding for research and public engagement, public standing, and institutional relationships (Macintyre 2011). Currently, the social sciences receive twelve per cent of the total research grants and contract funds flowing to UK universities, while STEM disciplines receive 85 per cent.

However, pitting STEM and the social sciences against each other in a highly competitive funding environment makes little sense on a number of levels, when many of the complex challenges currently being faced in a rapidly changing world involve integrated multi-disciplinary political, environmental, social, economic and technical solutions (p. 15).


Bastow, Dunleavy and Tinkler claim that it is decreasingly useful to uphold a firm dichotomy between STEM subjects and the social sciences, particularly when there is already a large overlap in such fields as psychology, health studies, geography and some parts of mathematics and statistics. Physical or natural sciences such as engineering, medicine and agricultural science, due to current economic and technological trends, increasingly operate in complex, multi-causal environments. At the same time, the social sciences have progressively moved, for better or for worse, towards adopting positivist models and methods informed by STEM disciplines, evident in the increasing mathematisation, quantification, formalisation and theorisation of the social sciences in most disciplines, especially in areas of economics and psychology (p. 16).

Pitting STEM and the social sciences against each other makes little sense.

Rather than thinking in terms of the social sciences versus STEM, the authors argue that this traditional divide should be replaced by three categories of disciplines, concerned with human-dominated systems, human-influenced systems, and almost completely natural systems, most of which are off-planet. Although the social sciences are focused on ‘human-dominated systems’ (essentially the detailed organisation of an advanced industrial society), they are increasingly important in the study of ‘human-influenced systems’ such as the planet’s climate and ecology (p. 20).

To better foster linkages and meet scientific and policy challenges, the authors suggest that universities consider reorganising their faculty structures to promote further convergence of all the human-dominated disciplines, for example, social sciences with IT and computer science, and with medicine and the health sciences. Cross-discipline research is not without barriers, and the authors acknowledge that integrative efforts would require a change in the deeply-entrenched patterns of university governance and professional siloing, along with a reconfiguration of research funding at a governmental level (p. 285). Such changes are already unfolding quite visibly in research areas addressing ecological changes and risks in environmental, ecological and climate change aspects of human-influenced systems, where STEM researchers acknowledge the critical importance of social, cultural, political and economic understandings in promoting any worthwhile or sustainable mitigation or adaptation efforts. One upshot is the increasing number of interdisciplinary areas of study and institutes in many universities, for example, the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, and the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University.

In the current context of impact debates and funding constraints, the authors suggest that there are incentives in favour of more broad-front work between STEM subjects and the social sciences. Much potential for impact lies in a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding and improving the handling of large-scale and multi-causal social, political and economic problems in both human-dominated and human-influenced systems. Working with the better funded STEM disciplines has the potential to increase social scientists’ access to grants and funding. And because citation rates are systematically higher in STEM subjects, social scientists involved in joint work could expect to see increases in citation rates, which would encourage a positive shift in their disciplines towards fostering co-operation (p. 288).

The authors also advocate a broad-front approach within social science itself, and argue that the social sciences would benefit from a more harmonious mode of operating, fostering cross-disciplinary integration, and presenting a collective consciousness as a discipline group as STEM has done. In the United Kingdom, they suggest that the professional associations and learned societies in the core social sciences are relatively weak and silo-oriented, and have generally lower rates of membership, compared to STEM. However, learned societies have an important part to play in relation to government as a ‘mediating middle’, by brokering policy engagement; organising forums; and providing a professional consensus view (p. 277).


The digital revolution has changed society in all facets—for business, government, civil society and non government organisations (NGOs), and for academics, and how they interact with each other. The Internet, mobile technology, digital and social media have facilitated new forms of communication, advocacy and networking. The digitisation of knowledge, which is becoming easier to produce and store, is one of the most important post-1945 steps in human culture and development. New types of organisations like Wikipedia and Google are now structuring, organising, mediating and contributing to the global reach of knowledge (p. 253).

The authors contend that social scientists need to adapt to this changing landscape and make the most of the opportunities it presents. Digital and social media have reduced many of the barriers to cross-disciplinary circulation of ideas. They have also radically improved the accessibility of academic knowledge, methods, texts and ‘tools’, both within and outside academia, and can contribute to such broad-front work. This development has major implications for public engagement and collaboration with external sectors. The rise of ‘big data’ analysis is starting to see the linking and integrating of social science insights with the working methods of engineering and information technology (IT) algorithms, and the joining up of disciplines into new hybrid forms of ‘computational social science’ that will lead to new opportunities (p. 284). Similarly, the ‘open data’ agenda affords all disciplines unprecedented access to government data, and opportunities for collaboration and impact on public policy.

Universities have become extensive broadcasters and are now able to reach geographically and socially diverse audiences through websites, recorded public lectures, podcasts, and the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses). The ‘open’ agenda (reinforced by research funding requirements) is improving access to scientific and academic research, increasingly visible in university repositories and on the Internet. But research translation and dissemination requires more than physical accessibility—it has to be translated in ways that are useful and understandable to a broader audience.

Digital and social media have reduced barriers to cross-disciplinary circulation of ideas.

The rise of social media has given academics a greatly expanded opportunity to undertake their own dissemination activities directly and personally and explain their research in popularly accessible ways, a particular boon for social science (pp. 228–229). In particular, an emerging resource of great value is multi-author blogs (MABs), where a central team provides co-ordination and effective social media support and make it possible to host contributions from hundreds of different authors each year (such as The Conversation website in Australia). The book itself is accompanied by such a blog, one of five at the LSE: MABs greatly boost the opportunities for multi-disciplinary learning, especially when linked to social media, with full texts on open access. Used wisely, various forms of social media all enable academics to get around communication barriers, as well as continuing problems with very long time-lags between publication and first citation dates, and indeed hard copy versions of publications, with content available online first (see, for example, LSE Public Policy Group 2011).


Deceptively compact, this data-rich book covers an enormous amount of territory beyond the scope of this review, and is an ideal starting point for anyone who is looking for a broad overview of the story of the social sciences in modern research, and the current, rapidly changing landscape within which the research impact agenda is situated. Although critical of many of the ways in which the impact agenda is currently being implemented, the authors encourage social scientists to seize the opportunity to demonstrate how much the social sciences can contribute to the economy and society. A forthcoming companion handbook on research skills by Dunleavy and Tinkler, Maximizing the Impacts of University Research (a consultation draft is available on the LSE project blog) is suggested reading for those who wish to explore the ‘how-to’ of improving impact in more detail.

While the focus is on the social sciences, STEM subjects are also analysed throughout the book in a number of contexts—as the competition, in comparative analyses, as potential collaborators, and as models to follow. Consequently, many of the discussions and findings are relevant to academics across all disciplines, particularly those whose work is conceptual or theoretical rather than instrumental and applied.

The book is also highly relevant in the Australian context—where the United Kingdom has gone in the impact agenda, Australia has tended to follow. While the 2015 round of the ERA does not currently include an impact assessment component, the language of impact is explicit in ARC grant applications and reporting mechanisms, and impact trials were conducted in 2011–12. In the present political landscape, the quest for research excellence that contributes to economic growth seems unlikely to diminish any time soon.

Note: The federal Coalition Government won the 2013 election two days after the statement made by Jamie Briggs. In the May 2014 budget, the Coalition followed through with their intention to invest more money in medical research, at the expense of most other areas of research (Commonwealth of Australia 2014).


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Michele Ferguson is a Research Officer in the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Queensland. Her research interests include evidence-based policy, environmental and social policy and environmental sociology.