By focusing on outputs, rather than people, we misunderstand the real impact of research

Blog by Paul Nightingale and Rebecca Vine: “Increases in funding for research come with a growing expectation that researchers will do more to improve social welfare, economic prosperity and more broadly foster innovation. It is widely accepted that innovation is a key driver of long-term economic growth and that public funding for research complements private investment. What is more contested is how research delivers impact. Whether it comes from the kinds of linear processes of knowledge transfer from researcher to user, sought for and often narrated in REF impact case studies. Or, if the indirect effects of research such as expertise, networks, instrumentation, methods and trained students, are as important as the discoveries….

One reason research is so important, is that as the economy has changed and demand for experts has increased. As we noted in a Treasury report over 20 years ago, often the most valuable output of research is ‘talent, not technology’. The ‘post-graduate premium’ that having a Masters qualification adds to starting salaries is evidence of this. But why is expertise so valuable? Experts don’t just know more than novices, they understand things differently, drawing on more abstract, ‘deeper’ representations. Research on chess-grandmasters, for example, shows that they understand chess piece configurations by seeing patterns. They can see a Sicilian defence, while novices just see a selection of chess pieces. Their expertise enables them to configure chess positions more effectively and solve problems more rapidly. They draw different conclusions than novices, typically starting closer to more robust solutions, finding solutions faster, and exploring fewer dead-ends….

Research is extremely important because innovation requires more diverse and deeper stocks of knowledge. Academics with field expertise and highly developed research skills can play a valuable and important role co-producing research and creating impact. These observations are drawn from our ESRC-funded research collaboration with the UK government – known as Project X. Within a year Project X became the mechanism to coordinate the Cabinet Office’s areas of research interest (ARIs) for government major project delivery. This required a sophisticated governance structure and the careful coordination of a mixed portfolio of practice-focused and theoretical research…(More)”.