It’s not all black and white: reflections on a workshop about research impact

It’s not all black and white: reflections on a workshop about research impact

I was delighted to be asked to facilitate a workshop on research impact at the NINE (Northern Ireland North East) ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) Autumn conference in November 2017. The conference was held at St James’s Park, the home of Newcastle United. I arrived at the venue on a beautiful day with the weak winter sun shining softly on the black and white stripes. This reminded me of a couple of sayings that are attributed to the Newcastle United legends Sir Bobby Robson and Paul Gascoigne. One of Sir Bobby’s alleged sayings is that he ‘would have given his right arm to be able to play the piano well’. Paul Gascoigne reputedly said ‘I never make predictions and I never will’. As I began my session that was entitled ‘what is research impact?’ I worked these sayings into my introduction. The audience included academics and scholars from Durham, Newcastle, and Queens University Belfast. I was advised that ‘research impact’ was a ‘vital’ aspect of being an ESRC scholarship student. I did not dispute this advice but I was curious to learn how the students perceived research impact and during the workshop I soon realised that the interpretation of what is research impact is far from black and white.

I provided key definitions that explain what research impact is. According to the REF (Research Excellence Framework) 2014, research impact refers to ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life beyond academia’. I then provided the definition of research impact that is available via RCUK (Research Councils United Kingdom). This states that research impact is: ‘the demonstrable contribution that research makes to society and the economy’ and that ‘economic and societal impacts embrace all the extremely diverse ways in which research-related knowledge and skills benefit individuals organisations and nations by fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the UK’. Research impact is revealed through ‘increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy’ and by ‘enhancing quality of life, health and creative output.’

During this dissemination I looked at the faces of my audience with alarm and thought that I was like a bird trapped within a Weberian iron cage. I really wanted to talk about how research processes can change individuals and make them think about the world in different ways and yet here I was reciting definitions of research impact as if they were lines from an accepted and holy set of texts. However, as soon as I began to talk about research processes and how they should transform the researcher (like the light being altered as it shines through a crystal) I received a much warmer response. This makes me think of professional development. The definitions of professional development are never as powerful as the processes of transformation that can occur when we think about how professional development can change our professional practice. Things are never simply black and white. The typology of professional development that Kennedy (2005) reveals only becomes alive and vibrant when we think of the processes that make us look at the professional world in different ways. So as opposed to remaining in ‘a confederacy of dunces’ I’m going to explore processes much more by relying on end products much less.


  • Kennedy, A., 2005. Models of cpd: a framework for analysis. Journal of in-service education, 31 (2), 235-250.
  • Toole, J.K. 2000. A confederacy of dunces. London: Penguin


Ewan Ingleby
School of Social Sciences Humanities and Law, Education Department, Teesside University, Middlesbrough, UK.


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