Next year, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment will take place where UK higher education institutions (HEIs) will be evaluated for their research activity in terms of the benefit to society. Even though the UK’s government spending on research is some of the most miserly in the world with only 1.7% of gross domestic profit well behind the world average of 2.4%, our ministers still think that academics should be accountable to a level of precision where they must declare and explain exactly how public money is being spent.

This is typical of a certain targets-driven view of performance which is I believe is distorting and destroying much of the long-term importance of good education that is ultimately delivered by academics who are also motivated by the personal satisfaction of undertaking original research. Many senior academics have been outspoken about the REF and previous attempts to measure activities that are difficult to quantify but it is not an exercise that one can ignore.

The assessment will form the basis of allocation of government financial funding which forms the largest pot of money to support the UK HEIs. Not surprisingly major time and effort is being put into submitting the best statement possible. Each academic not only has to provide evidence of the best research they have conducted but also how much impact it has had. Impact will represent 20% of the overall assessment. The problems with impact are that it is elusive, take years to become evident, and more importantly, there is no general consensus of what it actually is. Research impacts on society in many ways that do not immediately lend themselves to measure.

One particular measure of impact that most researchers are familiar with is public engagement as this is now a standard component of research grant applications where in addition to outlining an innovative plan of research, the academic also has to detail how they intend to share the research with the general public. In 2010, the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research was signed by the UK research councils that “recognizes the importance of public engagement to help maximize the social and economic impact of UK research.”

In my opinion, public engagement should be a necessary aspect of what publicly-funded scientists do. After all, long-gone are the days of the independently wealthy men (and they were almost always men) who had the means to support their own research. Nor can one expect commercially-supported scientists in industry to share their findings with their competitors. However, evaluating public engagement is notoriously difficult. Also not all scientists are necessarily equipped or skilled to communicate with the public though I expect this is changing as our graduates seem to be increasingly interested in speaking with the public which can be immensely rewarding. Many scientists operate in relative isolation with little opportunity to share their findings until they make the annual pilgrimage to the “conference.”

Some academics (this one included) engage with the public through lectures and events such as science festivals but, despite extensive efforts, defining and measuring effects remains a somewhat elusive task. It may be able to easily estimate the size of the audience but do they actually learn anything from a public lecture?

In a paper, just published [Gjersoe NL, Hood B (2013) Changing Children’s Understanding of the Brain: A Longitudinal Study of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures as a Measure of Public Engagement],we analyzed the impact of a science lecture based on the 2011 Royal Institution (Ri) Christmas “Meet Your Brain” on schoolchildren from low performing schools in the city of Bristol in the UK.The Christmas Lectures instigated by Michael Faraday in 1825, are aimed at a teenage audience and since 1966 have been broadcast on national television. They are generally considered the pinnacle of scientific public engagement and have been given by notable figures in public engagement including Sir David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan. Even though viewing figures attest to the popularity of these lectures, demonstrating considerable reach, there has been no experimental measure of their significant impact.

We wanted to know whether the experience left any lasting understanding of four basic facts about the brain including the common misconception that “we only use 10% of our brain.” Children were first assessed on their knowledge about the brain. They were then invited into Bristol University as part of the widening participation program where I gave them a summary lecture based on the Ri lectures. The children were then assessed again one week later and 6 weeks after the lecture. Analysis revealed a major improvement in understanding one week after the lecture that was retained at 6 weeks. This is an important finding because it demonstrates that by simply attending an engaging public lecture, children’s understanding was significantly improved indicating impact.

Of course, our study has many limits. How sustained are the findings but more importantly, did it have an effect on these young children and their attitudes towards science? Did we alter the future career-choice of individuals who may have been turned-off science by target-driven educational practices. That is where the real value of impact lies; stimulating the next generation to pick up the baton and move our understanding of the world forward. That said, there is no point being idealistic in this new academic climate, so I will be using this peer-reviewed paper as evidence in my own REF submission to prove that I have made an impact.

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