Impact Metaphors

In May 2005, the UK funding agency ESRC held a symposium on assessing the non-academic impact of research. In the report from the event, Approaches to assessing the non-academic impact of social science research, metaphors used to describe the research impact process are discussed:

The metaphors of hierarchies and networks provide two different ways of viewing the research impact process, but increasingly networks are considered to reflect best the process by which impact occurs. However, there is a difference between defining networks as channels of dissemination and seeing them as arenas within which knowledge is shared and developed. The latter reflects current understandings about communities of practice, which emphasise the importance of situated knowledge: knowledge is not an object that can be disconnected from the community within which it develops. Once we move towards models of knowledge co-production, the idea of research impact cannot be captured by phrases such as knowledge transfer. At the very least we need to think in terms of knowledge translation, knowledge mediation or knowledge interaction. Similarly, impact is no longer a uni-dimensional concept – the impact of research on policy and practice – but instead reciprocal impacts need to be considered.

This reminded me of a set of metaphors introduced by Svante Beckman, University of Link√∂ping, when debating the role of universities in society in the 1980-ies. According to him, the role of the university needs to be seen from various stakeholders' perspective. 

Students view the university as an arena for their education, career and life project. This makes the university a marketplace, where demand sets the limit for supply and access. Industry and the public sector see the university as a factory, producing a high-quality workforce and results that can be commercialised. The academic researchers consider the university as a sanctuary or oasis where they can pursue their own life projects, their own research and teaching. Some think the university is like a temple, where the education provides a ticket to much sought after professions with a high status in society.

I'm involved in a project right now focusing on measuring impact of research on society. Maybe we should aim for a new metaphor to capture that impact can be created in many ways, takes place in an integrated way without start or end, and that the impact can be of different kinds. Something in line with Indra's Net perhaps.

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