Be careful what you wish for? Impacting REF 2021 and beyond

In 2014, around the same time that the results of REF2014 were announced, David Knights and Caroline Clarke published in Organization Studies a paper exploring the ‘bittersweet symphony’ of academic life. These authors reflected upon how high achieving scholars might buy in to the competitive element of research audits like REF, striving to achieve good scores personally, and for their institutions. Yet Knights and Clarke observed also how scholars feel under increasing pressure, audit cultures having raised the bar regarding what is expected from aspiring researchers.

More recently in 2022, just before the publication of the REF2021 results, Anne Tsui and Peter McKiernan observed in the Journal of Management Studies the need to encourage impactful, responsible research that focuses on the benefits for society. They anticipate that management and business scholars will (and should be) consulted increasingly by governments, and by commercial and non-profit agencies as well as the news media, for expert opinions on responsible management.

Such aims are commensurate with the objectives of many business and management schools in the UK today. Within my own School for instance (University of Liverpool Management School) our mission is to advance influential knowledge leadership through transformational research in order to better business and society. Our research – like that of so many other Schools – underpins these ideals, with impactful projects enhancing the situation of organizations and communities both regionally and internationally.

It would seem, then, that the trajectory of the next REF (2028?) may focus increasingly on research that extends beyond blue skies thinking, and which impacts immediately on the enhancement of everyday lives.

In itself, this is an important aim. It is one with which I have much sympathy. From a personal perspective, I have for many years engaged in research that seeks to have an impact on equality and work-life balance at work. In a 2022 theoretical paper (published in Journal of Management Studies with Gary Powell and Jamie Ladge) our focus is on seeking to shift policy to embrace new ways of ‘doing fatherhood’ that would be more inclusive of employed men.

Yet at the same time, the move towards impactful research needs further thought.

For one thing, the freedom for business and management academics to engage in ‘blue skies’ thinking – where the ‘impact’ may not immediately be apparent – is one that I believe is important to defend. I would argue, for example, that French philosopher Michel Foucault did not write with an immediate ambition to change social policy. Yet almost half a century later, his thoughts continue to influence the work of many scholars of management and sociology. Whatever the requirements of REF 2028, we must seek to preserve space for those who wish to reflect and philosophise without necessarily relating their studies immediately to impact.

Perhaps more acutely, as we prepare for the next REF and the potential of encouraging business and management scholars to raise the external profile of their research, it will be crucial to consider the consequences of such aims.

Extending our research beyond the world of academia and setting it more prominently into the context of business and society brings with it new challenges – and unforeseen consequences. Reading the Times Higher, I noted the experience of Liverpool Hope academic Erin Pritchard who persuaded major retailers in the UK to rename popular UK confectionary previously known as ‘midget gems’ to ‘mini gems’. Pritchard, who describes herself ‘as a person with dwarfism myself’, made a major impact on the field of equality and diversity through facilitating the removal of this ‘offensive’ word from common usage.

When her achievements were reported in the media, however, what Pritchard had not expected was the backlash from those in the media (and on social media) who accused her of trying to ‘destroy British values’. Pritchard’s deeply unpleasant and undeserved experience suggests that, institutionally, we need to think beyond our own research community (and the REF) as we develop our impactful research for the benefit of society.

It will be important to encourage research that shifts policy and invokes debate, yet at the same time we need to carefully configure how we prepare ourselves, and our colleagues, to manage the unexpected (and sometimes unwelcome) consequences of research that genuinely impacts everyday lives.

 

The run-up to REF 2028 will lead us into important new territories and we must ensure that, institutionally, we are ready to support colleagues who forge such paths in undertaking research that results in social and business impact. If business and management schools want to push further the importance of responsible and impactful research, we must consider how to promote this, while safeguarding those who undertake it.

Caroline Gatrell, Professor of Organization Studies and Associate Dean Research, University of Liverpool Management School and Chair, Chartered ABS Research Committee.

Discussion

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