lucky enough not to have to follow these debates, the forthcoming
Research Excellence Framework by which academic departments are tested
for the quality of their research, will partly assess us for the Impact
of our research activities. And what is impact? It’s the demonstrable
effect on people outside academia of activities founded on original
This has unleashed a storm of protest
from from my national colleagues. The best argument against this
proposal is that academic research should have the freedom to be for its
own sake, that the utilitarianism of wanting to show that it
immediately has an impact on the world is to place an intolerable demand
on research and may mean the end of blue skies thinking. Einstein’s
special theory of relativity had no direct practical application for
forty years, so it is said. He would have crashed and burned in a
Research Excellence Framework.
This is not as strong an argument
against the current proposals as it seems, mainly because it
misunderstandings what the proposals are. We are asked, as departments,
to present case studies of impact: one case study per 5-10 members of
staff. In other words, not everyone and not every piece of work is
required to show impact. The great majority of staff and research can
continue to be blue skies work. Also, the definition of Impact is very
broad, including cultural impact, quality of life and so on. It has to
be beneficial and it has to be demonstrated (not proved or calculated)
but these seem to me harmless requirements.
Obviously, I’ve been thinking about
this, both as an academic but more specifically as Director of Research.
It seems to me that, at Royal Holloway, we are particularly good at
impact. We do a lot of theatre and performance making, particularly in
the Applied area where we are very strong. But there’s also my
playwriting, David Williams’s dramaturgical work with Lone Twin, Ali
Hodge’s core training, Matthew Cohen’s puppet work, Karen Fricker’s
reviewing, and much more. Also, we have a long tradition of interpretive
work, writing articles for the press, giving talks at theatres,
programme notes, and publishing books for the general reader. In
general, I think we can make an accurate and honourable case that we
have always written for the general reader; most of the books and
articles coming out of our department are (relatively) free of
It’s been in my mind because I did two Platforms at the National this week. One was with Matthew Dunster and Drew Pautz about Love the Sinner and the other was with Thea Sharrock about After the Dance.
Individually, they constitute almost no Impact at all, but alongside
all the other things I’ve done of this kind, and gathered together with
similar activities by my colleagues, they represent a sustained activity
of interpretation and communication.
The question is whether they rely on research, whether anyone could do them. Well, clearly, anyone could
do them. Do I bring anything extra to it by being ‘expert’? That’s
tricky. The point of the events is to give audiences a chance to hear
the theatremakers and other experts talking about their work. It’s not
to give them a chance to hear my ideas about the theatre, so the
questions typically are pretty soft (what drew you to this play? where
did the idea for this show come from?).
However, with Drew and Matthew, their
knowing that I’m a playwright meant that I think they trusted the
questions and direction of the conversation in a way they might not have
done with a critic, say. With Thea, she knew that I’d written about After the Dance,
had read that piece, and referred to it, so I think felt comfortable
that it was an informed conversation. As such, in both instances, the
conversation was more informed, comfortable and revealing that perhaps
it might have been.
It’s worth adding that Thea Sharrock’s decision to offer After the Dance came after reading the play in the version I edited. So the production itself - as well as the platform, programme article, and piece in the Guardian - constitute quite some impact.