“Is science the new religion, and is ‘impact’ its Bible?”

That was the first question posed at last night’s Science Question Time, held at Imperial College, and which kick-started an evening of lively discussion between panellists, audience members and followers on Twitter (#SciQT). A podcast of the event is now available.

Bob Ward, Director of Policy and Communications at the LSE Grantham Institute, suggested that in today’s straightened economic climate researchers and UK universities, need to get better at demonstrating why the research they conduct should receive funding. The need to demonstrate impact from publicly funded research is not simply driven by the economic climate, he suggested, but is a shift that is here to stay.

Bob was in favour of the Research Excellence Framework’s (REF) emphasis on ‘impact’ – with 20% of the overall assessment based on this – challenging those researchers who see this as a distraction from the business of ‘real science’ to change their mindset. A major challenge with the REF, Bob suggested, was that academics feel that they have received little guidance about how to write their Impact Assessments. He predicted a ‘fiasco’ if further information wasn’t forthcoming.

This point was challenged by Jonathan Haskel, an economist based at Imperial, who suggested that there was more guidance available than Bob suggested. David Sweeney, Director for Research, Innovation and Skills at HEFCE – leading the REF – also suggested that the research community needed to embrace and to ‘own’ the impact agenda, working with the Research Councils to improve and refine guidance on ‘pathways to impact’ – the plans which researchers must now produce to demonstrate how they will attempt to gain maximum impact for their research results.

A PhD student from the Institute of Child Health at Imperial raised an interesting point from the audience, questioning whether scientists’ credibility could be damaged if they suggested at the beginning of a project the likely impact which would result years later. At the end of the project, the student suggested, trust in scientists and in science could be damaged if the impact didn’t materialise. Bob Ward agreed that the encouragement of ‘marketing’ by researchers, with the impact agenda potentially encouraging overexaggeration of the likely benefits of research, was an issue. However, he argued that this was an area which could be tackled through greater professionalisation of the evaluation of impact – as researchers could not assess their own impact objectively. Researchers do have to get better at promoting what they have actually, and may realistically, achieve through their work however, he commented.

Alice Bell, Imperial College, raised an important point from the floor; commenting that the REF as it is framed at present does not capture adequately the impact which scientists can generate through participation in wider networks: the REF examines impact by institution. Bob Ward encouraged the academic community to engage with the REF to ensure that it captures what researchers are actually doing in order for their research to have impact. If these activities are not captured within the REF, there is a danger that they will cease, as people are incentivised towards those activities which do have a place in the Framework.

A lively discussion ensued to end the evening, regarding whether or not skilled communicators of science, such as Prof. Brian Cox, should be entered into the REF by their institution. Jonathan Haskell felt that it was justified that he would not be, as he was communicating not about his own research but about the research of others: the REF rewards public engagement as it relates to a researcher’s own body of work. Panellist Philip Campbell, Editor in Chief of Nature, felt strongly however that Brian Cox, and other scientists actively engaging the public in science, should be included in the REF for this work, therefore incentivising universities to employ and nurture such people.

Suggestions for topics for future Science Question Time events would be welcomed by the organisers. Email Rebecca Smith at the Biochemical Society with your ideas.

The event was co-organised by CaSE and the Biochemical Society, together with staff at Imperial College. James Wilsdon, Director of the Science Policy Centre at the Royal Society, was in the chair.