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Research impact: perspectives from the latest Coimbra Group High-level Seminar on Research Policy

21 December 2018

Daniel Donoghue, Andrew Jackson and Lorna Wilson
Durham University

High-level policy seminars are a cornerstone of the Coimbra Group calendar and this year’s event on “defining and measuring the impact of research” most certainly lived up to expectations. Organised in collaboration with the Venice International University, the two day seminar allowed senior university staff to meet with leaders from funding bodies, innovation institutes, and representatives of other leading European university networks. The event was timely given the structure of the next EU Research and Innovation Programme and its emphasis both on excellent research and to focus more on activities that have societal benefits.

Since the publication of the Lamy report and its various recommendations, it is interesting to see how these are embedded into the new framework programme pillars (see also the Coimbra Group response). The proposed budget is uplifted (not enough), there is a welcome emphasis on “Open Science” delivered through the familiar structures of the ERC and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, Mariana Mazzucato’s ‘mission orientated’ approach becomes the focus of Pillar 2, and Open Innovation becomes Pillar 3 through the vehicle of the European Innovation Council.  The presentations from Maria da Graça Carvalho and Jean-Claude Burgelman provided welcome clarity on the detail that underpins the overall structure and the emphasis on impact.

Ideas around ‘challenge-led’ research and the definitions and metrics associated with the ‘impact of research’ are very familiar to academics in the United Kingdom. Indeed our national funding body UK Research & Innovation demands that all proposals incorporate a plan that sets out ‘pathways to impact’ and expects successful proposals to deliver on that plan irrespective of discipline. Furthermore, since 2014 a large part (20-25%) of the government funding that is directly allocated to universities on the basis of research quality (the UK Research Excellence Framework – REF) is attached to an assessment of impact. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the European Research Council rightly noted that research funding agencies around the world are under pressure from policy makers and politicians to respond to increased expectations of societal and economic impact. Indeed, representatives of research funding bodies including Chonnettia Jones from the Wellcome Trust and Rick Rylance, formerly chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, made the same point but explained the importance of setting sensible and realistic metrics, especially for the humanities and social sciences. As the new framework programme gears up to embrace ‘impact’ it is important to emphasise, that this is far from being a new debate and we need to recognise that universities impact positively on society through the quality of their academic staff and students and indeed, through the  bond between education and research. As Jean-Pierre Bourguignon stresses, “we must not forget that the most essential constituents of the research system are the researchers themselves, the human beings who make all this exist and function.”

A recent meeting of Coimbra Group research support officers in Durham produced a mini-audit of good practice across our universities. Ann Ryan presented this to the policy seminar and from this analysis two things are clear. First, that there are many excellent initiatives coming from within our own institutions that help promote good practice and support the research community. Secondly, this is a good time to stop and reflect on our understanding of the ‘culture’ around the values, belief and norms that surround impact within each of our institutions. Jennifer Chubb ended the seminar with a philosophical take on the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that motivate researchers to engage in, and ultimately benefit society. This brings us back to values, ideals and freedoms to pursue education and research that we so cherish.