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Barker on Research Impact

The social sciences have wide-ranging impacts on the world we live in, from informing policy and improving public services to enhancing social inclusion and diversity.

In recent years, impact has become an ever-prominent aspect of academia, forming a vital component of research funding through pathways to impact and impact-oriented schemes such as the Grand Challenges Research Fund. There has also been confirmation of an increased weighting for impact in the next Research Excellence Framework (REF2021).

Collectively, these changes are shaping the academic and research landscape but despite the increasing prevalence of the impact agenda, the generation and indeed evidencing of impact remains challenging. Impact can be elusive and is often hard to demonstrate. It can be a substantial leap to translate ideas into action and for these to become embedded in practice. For example, presenting policy recommendations in research findings and making these changes happen in reality involves navigating a complex policy environment with a range of external dependencies that can affect the chances of successful implementation.

In order to facilitate change, the more widely research can be disseminated, the greater chance there is that it will heard and acted upon. Initiatives such as Palgrave Pivot​​​​​​​ and the Open Access movement are helping to make scholarly work more accessible to a wider audience, which is a positive step forwards for the discoverability of research. However, in order to progress from principles of openness and dissemination to tangible influence and impact, we need to encourage engagement, dialogue and trust with the communities and groups we are trying to affect. Impact is not a passive, one-way process; it involves a complex set of interactions, activities, and networks of people to concretise and bring about societal change.

The Social Science Matters campaign is an opportunity to showcase the ways in which social science research benefits our society, economy, and environment, from the local to the global level. Here at The National Archives, an Independent Research Organisation and the leader of the archive sector in England and Wales, we are seeking to increase our collaboration with social scientists on challenges we face surrounding big data and risk, digitisation, and the creation of national datasets. We are also exploring the psychological and affective experiences of archives, with research questions around representation, memory, and identity. Our research themes are intentionally interdisciplinary and seek to not only further knowledge, but also shape policy and practice. Solutions for our research challenges are rooted in the overarching aim of improving the discoverability and usability of our collections for public benefit.

Whilst the formalisation of research impact may sometimes seem like another aspect of the research process to grapple with, in reality it speaks to the heart of the social sciences and their potential for us to learn about and, in turn, transform the world we live in.

Harriet Barker is Academic Engagement Manager at The National Archives, official archive and publisher for the UK Government and an independent research organisation. Find out more about Research at The National Archives and how to collaborate with them.