Engaging with 'impact' agendas? Reflections on storytelling as knowledge exchange

Part of book or chapter of book English OPEN
Stella, Francesca (2014)
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Subject: HM

The ‘impact agenda’, that is the whole gamut of initiatives related to knowledge exchange and public engagement that have been articulated in recent years, has had and continues to have a significant shaping influence on the way in which academics carry out their research. Within a UK context, the Research Excellence Framework (2008-2013) has made an explicit engagement with this agenda virtually compulsory for research-active academics by introducing ‘impact’ as a new criteria on which the research performance of universities, departments and individual researchers is assessed. The new emphasis on impact, defined as the ‘demonstrable contribution’ that research makes ‘to society and the economy’ beyond specialist academic audiences, has generated much discussion and controversy among academics. \ud The ‘impact agenda’ has been critiqued on a number of grounds, ranging from diluting standards of academic excellence (Jump 2012), to limiting academic freedom by tying fundable academic enquiry to policy objectives, to concerns about the difficulties and costs involved in assessing ‘impact’ (Martin 2011). The widespread perception that academic autonomy is increasingly threatened by the twin forces of ‘audit culture’ and the commodification of higher education has been exacerbated by the broader climate of economic austerity and related cuts in university funding. Meanwhile, ‘impact’ itself remains a poorly understood and nebulous concept even as ‘impact case studies’ are embedded within REF criteria and scores. The difficulty in clearly defining the rules of the game stems from the fact that each discipline, research community and individual researcher has their own notion of ‘impact’ as it pertains to their work. Nonetheless, there is a real danger that lack of clarity, compounded with the obligatory compliance to impact assessment, may encourage a strategic ‘game-playing’ and a random incentivisation of short-term ‘impact’ activities by university management, rather than a vision of what meaningful engagement with non-academic publics may look like.\ud In the light of this, the basic aim of this chapter is to reflect critically on the difficulties of implementing impact agendas with recourse to a Research Networking initiative (Translating Russian and East European Cultures), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The chapter focuses on knowledge exchange, since a key and recurring point of reflection throughout the initiative concerned the nature and practice of knowledge exchange (cf. Mitton et al. 2007) across academic and non-academic ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger 1998). This topic is explored here though a case study of one particular strand of the TREEC Network Initiative dedicated to storytelling. The heart of the chapter reflects on storytelling as a way to facilitate ‘knowledge exchange’, as well as on the ability of the storytelling events organised to bring together different publics. Whilst critical of ‘impact agendas’, I proceed from the position that, as publicly funded researchers, academics have a responsibility to contribute to the wider society through their knowledge, skills and resources, and that beyond strategic compliance to impact assessment ‘knowledge exchange’, broadly defined, has always been and should remain an integral part of university activities.
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