Impact in Action: Matt Flinders

In the next few days Social Science Space will hear from five winners of Britain’s Economic and Social Science Research Council’s 2018 Impact Prize to learn how they built meaningfulness into their own research and how they measure impact more broadly. We continue today with Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield, winner of the Impact Champion prize.

Could you briefly describe your research? When designing your research study, what did impact look like to you?

My research activity covers a broad range of areas from the relationship between art and politics to citizenship education in schools, and from modes of political disengagement to new forms of governance. Over the last couple of years I have been building a new inter-disciplinary research centre – the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield – and have been working with lots of brilliant PhD and post-docs. I don’t really think about ‘impact’ as a separate element or dimension of my research. It is more about an approach to scholarship that is embedded within the broader society and that seeks valid knowledge and expertise in a range of arenas. This allows me to see impact opportunities at every stage in the research process and to use pathways to impact as ways not just of communicating information (scholar – society) but also and critically of questioning the validity and value of that knowledge (society -scholarship).

What advice would you offer to researchers seeking to generate impact through their own research?

Do not undertake impact, knowledge exchange or any sort of public engagement process purely in order to satisfy the REF. Understand that there is no such thing as ‘the public’ in a simple homogeneous sense and there is great wisdom in Michael Burawoy’s phrase about the need to ‘engage with multiple publics in multiple ways’. It is also incredibly valuable to keep an eye on professional opportunities beyond academe – even on a part-time or voluntary basis – in order to foster new skills, insights and opportunities. I spent some time helping to run a large NHS acute mental health trust and it was one of the most professionally rewarding and useful experiences of my career.

Should impact be the ultimate goal of research?

I’m going to be provocative here and say ‘yes’ but with the caveat that when I talk about ‘impact’ I am adopting a very broad and pluralistic definition. In this definition ‘impact’ provides a fresh set of techniques and insights through which to improve the quality of both research and teaching while also increasing the public visibility (and therefore political leverage) of the social and political sciences.

Where next for your research?

I want to reduce the breadth of my research activities and focus down on just two or three issues. One of these will be on ‘the politics of impact within academe’ as the impact agenda is emerging for academics in a large number of countries around the world. Although I am generally ‘pro-impact’ I am keen that the academy plays a stronger and clearer role in shaping the contours of this agenda so that some of the potential pathologies can be avoided. One of these is the need to see the issue of impact through the lens of the equality, inclusion and diversity agendas in order to ensure that certain inequalities or obstacles are not unwittingly further embedded within professional structures.

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