Beyond Impact? Knowledge Exchange, Practice and Impact: Opportunities and challenges in new era for the academy

Jacqui Broadhead

In the first seminar in the Beyond Impact? COMPAS Seminar Series, Sarah Spencer, Director of the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity was in conversation with Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Professor of English and Knowledge Exchange Champion for the Humanities Division. This blog recaps and reflects upon the key points from the seminar and discussion.

In opening the seminar and the series, Sarah Spencer set out some key questions for academics across disciplines and research agendas to engage with, in order to think critically about knowledge exchange and impact. Namely – how we can consider not only the ‘how’ of effective knowledge exchange but explore the long term implications of engaging in impact and how might this engagement change and challenge the traditional role of the academic and priorities of the academy?

Knowledge Exchange can be seen as a shift from the old model of dissemination to a mutual, two way exchange across a wide range of partners; one means through which the role of the academic has developed from contributing to a body of scholarship to a broader impact across society – through informing the thinking of policy makers to broad public engagement. However, if we are to engage with knowledge exchange and impact deeply and not superficially, this raises some important questions; is this what academics really signed up for? Do we have the skills sets and ways of working to embrace this different role of the scholar (and are career pathways set up to enable and reward this?). How do we engage critically with a role which may take academics into a position closer to advocacy: is there a fine line between facilitating social change through knowledge exchange and pursuing a particular agenda for change which scholars should not cross? Moreover, is there a further, question: is all impact good impact and who gets to decide this?

The Beyond Impact? seminar series will use all aspects of migration as a case study to explore these opportunities and challenges – while arguing that these have wider applicability across disciplines and can promote interdisciplinary approaches. In this first seminar, Professor Shepherd-Barr used her experience as a theatre scholar looking, inter alia, at the role of theatre in encouraging pubic engagement in science, and as the Humanities’ Division Knowledge Exchange Champion, to illuminate some of these key debates in relation to KE and impact.

Finding a different way to approach the problem

TORCH’s approach to KE does not automatically include ‘impact.’ Knowledge exchange can be a pathway to impact – but also has a value in and of itself. It is a two way process that can rejuvenate the research and the researcher as much as it is a pathway to influence or engagement. Crucially, at its best, knowledge exchange supports both researchers and others to find a different way to approach an issue. In the example of theatre, this may include noticing in real time audience reactions and engagement and feeding this back into research – or though using more traditional forms of feedback such as post performance discussion or evaluation forms. TORCH is not necessarily evangelical in encouraging knowledge exchange and certainly does not devalue research which doesn’t engage it or those academics who may not be well suited to it – but where it does it can produce powerful tangible and intangible outcomes.

These intangible outcomes provide one of the greatest headaches (and most common question) for researchers – which is how to track and measure impact? Whilst important, this can act as a distraction – having a predefined expectation of ‘impact’ rather than embracing knowledge exchange as a positive methodology which will yield impact over time.

Whose impact? Good, bad or neutral and who gets to decide?

If the process of Knowledge Exchange as a methodology can be thought of as (relatively) neutral then the conversation around impact appears to be more fraught. Whilst for the purposes of the Research Excellence Framework all impact is considered to be ‘good’ impact, is this realistic or indeed appropriate. If an impact is value neutral, then can it really be said to have had much of an impact at all?

Some of these concerns may be resolved through the structure and design of a project – true knowledge exchange surely should not include preaching from on high aiming to produce a ‘subversive education of the masses.’ However, it is a challenge – particularly in a field as contentious as migration of the dual risks – both of engaging only the already converted and of being unable to find outcomes around which to orientate a consensus on which ‘impact’ is desirable and which is not.

‘The decline from thinking to feeling’ – evaluating and understanding how to engage effectively

One area for collaboration in knowledge exchange that emerged from discussion is around public engagement on migration. As highlighted in the quote above, in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (a subject of Professor Shepherd-Barr’s research into science on the stage), physics and the classical architecture of the rationalist enlightenment are placed in contrast to the emotion led, natural chaos of the Romantics. This could be framed as an unhelpful false opposition between disciplines – but it could also be seen to illuminate some of the impact related debates in migration studies and beyond – namely what is the most effective way to present research and findings to a public (as well as to policy makers and politicians) who may feel saturated, turned off or resistant to solely fact based research.

Alongside knowledge exchange, is there a place for emotional engagement or exchange – particularly in the fraught world of migration? Do we wish to interrogate the emotions that we provoke through our research and its impact and is one more effective in achieving our outcomes than another? Is it more effective to provoke outrage and debate or inspiration and awe? Is laughter and humour a way to engage people sideways rather than head on? Similarly where an issue feels vast and overwhelming, can individual stories be more effective in facilitating understanding – and is this where a truly interdisciplinary approach could become more than the sum of its parts.

There are, of course, challenges within this. Professor Shepherd-Barr drew on her experience to neatly frame the problem; theatre may be a great way to teach science, but first and foremost it has to be a great play. Knowledge Exchange must enhance the contribution of each discipline – rather than diminish the quality of either.

Within migration studies, this approach raises the question of the role of the academic and what we are aiming to achieve. Personal stories and emotional approaches may help to make research resonate – but does it also tip over our work from research to advocacy? Do we risk inadvertently becoming activists trying to win over hearts and minds as opposed to independent researchers seeking to share (and learn from) those who could benefit from our findings. These are vital debates – which bring up more questions rather than easy answers and which will form the basis for the next seven weeks of seminars and discussion.

Following this opening seminar on the big picture of the debates around knowledge exchange and impact, our next seminar will focus on a case study example of practice from the field, with Sara de Jong (The Open University) and Kate Smart and Almas Farsi (Asylum Welcome) discussing Brokering Knowledge in Research with Refugee and Migrant Case Workers.


Image: 20 Tips & Tricks for Academics working with communities (set of 20 cards); by Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC)