Impact – it’s not academic

I learned this week that academics are suddenly worried about their impact, driven by the inclusion of impact as a criterion in the Research Excellence Framework. As explored in Tuesday’s Guardian, there appears to be a trend in academia to associate impact with increased media profile, case studies and generally good PR for the individual.

That doesn’t seem right to me, especially from an ‘industry’ typically associated with rigorous evaluation, or at least an understanding of the concepts of good evidence. So I wonder if academia can learn something from the public and social sectors here….

Over the past 5 years we have seen a significant focus on defining, and measuring impact by charitable foundations, social enterprises and charities and social impact investors through initiatives like Inspiring Impact; the impact measurement work of the Global Impact Investors Network; or theSROI Network. And a new breed of institutions focused on gathering and promoting evidence of what works (what has impact) in different fields is emerging, from the Education Endowment Foundation,National Institute of Clinical Excellence, or the Early Intervention Foundation.

So there is a wealth of material out there that academics could draw on, too much to assimilate here, but I offer just a few tips for nervouse professors from the approach we take with our investment fund Nesta Impact Investments

  1. Think of your impact as your intended effect on the world (your effect on other people, the environment, government policy, etc)
  2. Recognise that you will have an intended impact (you discover a radical new strong material) and you may have some unintended impact (it requires huge amounts of fossil fuels to make it)
  3. Build an impact plan: state at outset what change in the world you are working to bring about, and how you intend to measure that and to assess any unintended consequences. Then measure those things, analyse and report your findings and use that information to help you and others improve.

There’s lots of scope for PR about your impact; it’s just that the PR itself isn’t your impact.


Joe Ludlow - Director, Nesta Impact Investments