by Peter Larkham
Mark Reed makes some provocative statements about academics, research, excellence and impact. He is quite right to emphasise these points at a time when the academic world is changing fast. We need to be flexible and change, too. All academics worth their salary would agree that we need to demonstrate the highest possible standards in research quality output, research impact, and teaching. But not all excel at all three.
Research quality output: this is the older yardstick by which researchers are measured. Even so, it seems strangely difficult to secure sound and shared assessments of quality; in fact it sometimes seems to depend how an assessor was feeling that morning. This gives us some concern when we think about how the next government-driven review, the Research Excellence Framework, will review this aspect of excellence. The process lacks transparency and detailed feedback – both potentially compromise the quality of the process and its outcomes. We often feel that we can recognise value and excellence, but just what is it that distinguishes the very best – what one assessor once described as “Nobel-level”? But there aren’t Nobel prizes in the built environment! So are all disciplines assessing quality equally? And we teach new researchers that they individually are consumers of research: they need to be able to identify for themselves what makes a particular publication relevant, interesting or important. But most people don’t have time to read lots of research publications or, as Mark rightly said, the publications are difficult or expensive to access. So how can we more accurately convince the rest of the world that what we do is of high quality?
Research impact: we could demonstrate the value – the impact – of our research, and this is the new dimension introduced into the REF survey for this year. There are criteria for measuring it, although they have not been explicit throughout the survey period, and it is obviously much easier for some disciplines and topics to provide measurable impact (for example on government policy) than others. So researchers need not only to strive to produce the highest-quality publications, but to maximise impact. This often means new types of activity – writing for professional and public magazines rather than academic journals; mass and social media work, and so on. This could be additional work and require new, non-traditional, skills. We need to look closely at these issues. For there is little point in high-quality research that is inaccessible to most people. But the academic world has long looked down on the “popularisers” of research. Perhaps we need more robust discussion about what constitutes “impact”, and recognise its variation between and even across disciplines.
And then there is teaching. For many of us, research underpins teaching; being at the cutting edge of quality research interests many students too. Research should be embedded in teaching and learning. But isn’t this also part of “impact”? We teach future generations of professionals. We think and hope that we influence how they think and what they do. Yet the interplay between teaching and research seems under-regarded in current discussions on research quality and impact. “Textbooks” are rarely accepted a evidence of quality research, yet many are, of necessity, driven by new research, new knowledge.
Our students, their families and other members of the public, professionals, politicians and others need to be more closely involved in a wider debate about how we make “academic” publications more readable and accessible, while retaining quality; about how we think of, define and measure “impact” more flexibly to capture more diverse impacts in more diverse contexts; and how we more clearly embed high-quality research in high-quality teaching.
Peter Larkham is Professor of Planning in the Birmingham School of the Built Environment. He has a long-standing research interest in urban form and the reshaping of cities after the second World War, has published over 65 journal papers, and his most recent book is The Blitz and its Legacy, edited with Mark Clapson (Ashgate, 2013) http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409436980. But have you read any of his publications?