The quest for impact (or, stretching my academic legs)


On Saturday afternoon I managed to book two flights, check in to one of them, and book two coach journeys and four nights’ accommodation whilst watching a football match. This isn’t so much a testament to my multitasking skills, nor to excellent apps from a well-known hotel chain and Aer Lingus (I have no idea how functional Ryan Aer’s app might be; I guess I have always assumed it would be as functional as the airline itself and have therefore given it a wide berth). No, my true surprise at managing to do all of this from my phone was my ability to get a mobile phone signal in a football ground. Fair play to the operators of Swansea’s Liberty Stadium who manage to provide a 4G signal on a par with no other at football grounds that this rambler has visited; it was truly impressive, unlike the football which was truly awful.

Anyway, as a result of my booking success on Saturday evening in south Wales, I now find myself on a coach, midway between Dublin and Galway, reflecting on my legs. Not my physical legs, but my academic ones. You see, I’m off to Galway to meet an instrument manufacturer.

Some time ago, as part of a research project, our team developed a widget. Now it’s not like me to brag (one of several things that distinguishes me from others I could mention), but we reckon this widget may well have a bit of potential to safeguard, if not save, a few lives in areas of the world less fortunate and less replete with resources than our own. We’ve proved the science, showcased the technology at home and overseas. Now we’re looking for someone to refine the design from the advanced prototype that we currently have, and then bite the bullet and invest in reasonably large-scale manufacture. A business partner, if you like.

And therein lies my problem. I’m an academic, not a business person.

And yet here I am, on the bus, heading to a meeting to discuss unit costs, market share, brand essence, global reach and other business-like terms that I don’t understand. And why am I doing it? Well, there’s the obvious humanitarian element to the work; making a difference, saving the world, etc. But there’s also that other, not so small, consideration of the “I word” – impact. The powers that be at my institution have decided that my widget is the perfect opportunity for me to demonstrate that I am capable of rather more than polishing the ivory in my tower, and so they are pushing me for an impact case study for REF 20-whenever.

Now I genuinely do believe in the need for academics to demonstrate their worth to society. I may be a fan of the Edwardian mathematician GH Hardy, but don’t go along with his idea that “I am interested in mathematics only as a creative art.”   We do our research for a reason. If REF impact case studies are the means by which we must demonstrate our value, then so be it. I don’t like it; but if we are to play the game, we must play to the current rules, like them or loathe them.

The problem is, I’m not sure that jobbing academics are the best people to do this. Which made me think of my legs. Anthropologically, I’m a biped (if that isn’t a real word then it should be). Contractually, I’m a tripod – my employer expects me to contribute to teaching, research and academic administration, whilst some of my colleagues are academic bipeds, focusing on teaching and admin, or research and admin. So where does impact come in? It now seems to be an add-on to the academic remit, to have crept in by stealth rather than by design. But how it got there isn’t the issue for me; the issue is more about fitness to do the job. And I’m not sure I’m fit enough for the fourth leg. Like I say, I’m an academic.

Yes, universities have business liaison departments within their Professional Services functions these days. But have you ever tried convincing a Business Liaison bod that what they really want to do is take two days away from sexy, desk-based, license agreements, fly across the Irish Sea, sit on a bus for three hours to then discuss potential widget manufacture for a few hours, and then repeat the journey in the opposite direction? Have you not? Well I have, and let me assure you, the response is not 100% positive.

And so it seems I’m best placed to do this sort of stuff (plane, bus, negotiate, bus, plane) and to report back, whereupon if it’s thought by those in the know to be a cash cow (sorry, I mean “attractive business proposition”), they’ll swoop in with a contract so tight that the secret love child of Harry Houdini and David Blaine would struggle to find a way through it. And that’s after taking six months to agree the wording of a half page non-disclosure agreement. (Note to self – don’t rant about parochial issues in blogs; you never know, other universities may have perfectly functional Contracts Departments).

Thus, it falls to me to make that journey and have that meeting. Something in which I am untrained, unskilled and unprepared. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind doing this, I just think that, like many things in the academic world, it could be done better by someone who knows what he or she is doing, with a far more effective outcome.

Back to the lack of a quadruped contract; I wonder if I’m alone in seeing the irony in an institution that purports to have introduced routes to promotion on the basis of knowledge transfer and impact, whilst not including either phrase or word in the contracts of many of its academics. It’s certainly not in mine (although, admittedly I am old and impact hadn’t been invented when I was appointed).

It may also be an opportune time to revisit that rather arcane contract that I seem to be working to. The one that stipulates that there are no holidays associated with the role and requires me to live within 20 miles of the University; that being the maximum reasonable distance to travel to work by horse (I kid you not).

Anyway, one plus point to this little adventure is that when I get back to Dublin on Friday I’ll be able to stand outside the Aviva stadium (or Lansdowne Road as I still insist on calling it) and see if I can get a phone signal.


3 thoughts on “The quest for impact (or, stretching my academic legs)”

  1. Nice ! In academia, tasks are only ever added to those we currently perform. There is never any abatement or encouragement to specialize. And – you will be judged only on that which you do not do ‘excellently’.


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