Impact. The mere mention of the word starts the creative juices flowing, at the same time sending shivers up my spine.
Impact and communications often go hand in hand, so as a communications professional working in academia, there are two questions that keep me up at night:
1.Are academics and policymakers are really committed to engaging with each other to generate impact?
2.How can we capture evidence of impact when we actually achieve it?
I’m pleased to say that after last week’s Festival of Social Science, run by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), I will at least sleep soundly having been reassured of the first.
This year’s Festival has confirmed for me that academics and policymakers alike value knowledge sharing, and that we’re starting to find good mechanisms for doing so.
As part of the Festival, the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) launched initial health findings from the age 42 survey at a morning seminar at the Department of Health (DH). Seventy-five per cent of our delegates came from outside the academic community – and 76 per cent of those were civil servants. Considering how tricky it has been to effectively promote our events to policymakers, we chalked this one up as a great success.
Those of you also struggling to get the non-academic turnout will appreciate how thrilled I was to receive a phone call the week before the event that started like this:
“Hello, I’m calling from the office of the Permanent Secretary…”
Indeed, the Permanent Secretary of DH had heard about our seminar and wanted to attend. She showed up, asked insightful questions and engaged in the discussion. We even got a suggestion for the age 46 survey of the 1970 cohort – more questions on the kind of physical activity people do at work.
I think there were three main reasons why we were more successful at garnering interest from the civil service than we have been in the past. The first was venue. By having the event in a government office building, we were bringing the discussion to our audience, rather than asking them to come to us.
The second was contacts. Our links at DH had not only helped us secure a venue, but they chaired the event and shared the invitation with their colleagues. We had also spent the time pulling together an invite list that included people who had attended previous events on similar topics, CLS team members’ personal contacts, and anyone who had mentioned obesity in Parliament over 20 times in the past six months.
Last but by no means least, we had good quality content.
The day began with a presentation from Matt Brown, Survey Manager for the 1958 and 1970 cohorts. Matt gave an overview of the BCS70, demonstrating how it has helped enrich our understanding of countless health-related issues. The findings showing social predictors of poor health and bad habits really stood out for me – for example, the link between smoking and spending time in care during adolescence.
Next up was Dr Alice Sullivan, Principal Investigator of the BCS70, with the latest health and lifestyle findings from the study. An evident men’s health issue has arisen from even just an early look at the data – men in their forties are were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than women, and significantly less likely to realise it. The findings made quite a splash with the media (see BBC News, BBC Wales and the Evening Standard).
Prof Eric Brunner and Prof Amanda Sacker then took it a step further with some longitudinal analysis. Their respective presentations on the relationship between socioeconomic disadvantage and health behaviours, and the effect of breastfeeding on social mobility demonstrated beautifully the ways in which these studies really are a resource for policy – showing effects over time and across generations, and demonstrating the interdependency of different life domains.
Later that evening I went to the launch of Britain in 2014, the ESRC’s annual magazine. The evening opened with the man you can always rely on to trumpet the value of Britain’s longitudinal studies portfolio, David Willetts, Minister of Universities and Science. Willetts told a story of a recent trip to China where he got his hands on what he later discovered were participant materials for a local cohort study. Written almost completely in Chinese, there were two words that stood out — ALSPAC and Avon. Evidently the British cohort studies are making impact ripples far beyond our small island.
Across all the evening’s speakers, what stood out for me was how directly their research spoke to policy and practice concerns. For example, Professor Stephen Pudney spoke of his research using Understanding Society to shed light on whether disability benefits in the UK are fit for purpose.
So while we’re still far from cracking the impact ‘nut’ – the time tables of policy development and research are still difficult to marry, and we have few proven ways to track our influence systematically – today I’m more convinced than ever that we’re on the right track.
Interested in impact? See the ESRC Impact Toolkit.
Meghan Rainsberry is the Communications Manager for CLOSER and the Centre for Longitudinal Studies.