President’s Corner: The Impact Agenda

The Impact Agenda: Observations, An Anecdote, Postscripts

What is the “impact agenda” for universities, and especially for the social sciences?  “Impact” signifies taking steps beyond our current practices for the dissemination of knowledge:  figuring out how to see that research is effectively used beyond the academy. Basically, it aspires to go beyond the core university teaching and research agendas of publishing research in peer reviewed journals, opening new lines of research, and transmitting knowledge to students alone.

Observations:

  1. American research universities are insistently promising greater impact for their research products. As recently framed by a National Academies of Science report, the mission of the National Science Foundation is advancing America’s “health, prosperity and welfare, national defense and the progress of science.” In this formulation, impact occurs if the progress of fundamental science advances utilitarian goals. (The Value of Social, Behavioral, Economic Science, NAS 2017, at the request of the National Science Foundation [italics added].)

This does not preclude knowledge for the sake of deeper knowledge, a core goal of America’s research universities. Research-based knowledge is the bedrock upon which the university’s identity—and its usefulness to the impact agenda—is founded. But there is a clear motivation to address the practical consequences that follow fundamental research.

  1. Those practical consequences are forerunners to today’s promise of “greater impact,” but why is there now a sudden surge on behalf of utilitarian results? The simple answer: knowledge relevant to current challenges is in heavy demand, and universities are generally trusted to provide it.  At least three questions arise: Is the knowledge that universities provide true and dependable?  If applied, will the applications be consequential?  Do the consequences meet our moral standards? On the first question—distinguishing truth from falsehood—the research university record is unmatched; on consequential impact, the record is more mixed; on the ethics of new knowledge and how it is put to use, universities are largely AWOL.

Universities are unmatched on the true/dependable question because they built a research infrastructure anchored in peer approval, which paradoxically ceded to competitors the responsibility to judge the quality of each other’s faculty (tenure review letters) and knowledge products (refereed journals).  In this they transparently subject themselves to being proven wrong.  Universities have matched a robust research infrastructure with an equally robust teaching infrastructure, taking seriously their obligation to transmit knowledge to each new generation of students.

The record of universities is more mixed on the external consequences of their knowledge (that is, their impact) because consequence has never been tracked and rewarded on the same scale as original discovery. Original research is recognized by awards and prizes,  election to prestigious academies, lifetime tenure. Impact receives nothing remotely comparable.

Putting this differently, while all successful research universities have robust research and teaching infrastructures, few boast of their robust implementation infrastructure, let alone incentivize it.  Making good on impact, however, requires taking it as seriously as we take research and teaching.

  1. Our universities already benefit from a healthy interaction between  research and teaching; adding impact, at the scale currently being discussed, will generate a three-dimensional interaction of equally important purposes: teaching, research, and impact.  The task should start by building on an expertise already present, but not yet at scale:  this is the expertise required to  bring research findings to the attention of target actors and implementers in government, business, NGOs, law, hospitals, schools, and the like (the impact discussion includes a pervasive reference to co-production and partnering). Newly recruited university experts will be knowledgeable about the terrain in which target actors operate, about which tenured faculty and their students are less informed; reciprocally, university experts will alert target actors to what is ripening in the research and teaching pipelines. This is not an exhaustive list.  It is intended only to insist that the impact agenda is a substantial undertaking, that it needs an infrastructure, and that it is not a task for amateurs—even if they are brilliant teachers and researchers.

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The Anecdote:

A public policy school in an elite university has a healthy mixture of professors of practice and tenured faculty. The former vote on whether to promote professors of practice, but not on tenure cases. The latter vote not only on tenure cases but also on experts recruited from the world of practice.  Perhaps it makes sense to assume that the world of practice cannot satisfactorily judge the quality of tenure track research. But what is the evidence that tenured faculty can assess the world of practice?  Questionable. Building an implementation infrastructure is a task for those expert in such matters.  Such expertise is rare among faculty focused on basic research, and often deliberately sheltered from sites where impact is the goal and implementation is underway.

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Postscripts:

Our third question—what is right, what is wrong—was actively present in the early period of America’s research universities, but was gradually pushed aside as the secular scientific ethos took over. Bringing ethics back as impact comes into play is no small matter.  But it is inescapable. The university will turn to its philosophers and humanists, that is, to those who do not study “What is life?” but, rather, “What is a meaningful life?”

Guard against the insidious spread of “second-class” citizens.

Ban the “real-world” terminology, which implies that universities are less real than the institutional sites of the public policies, products, and social practices addressed by the impact agenda.

Ken Prewitt

February 2020