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5.1 The origins of impacts within each academic discipline

5.2 The role of joined-up scholarship

5.3 Understanding the impacts interface

5.4 How far do academics and researchers undertake activities likely to generate external impacts?



An external research impact is a recorded or otherwise auditable occasion of influence from academic research on an actor, organisation or social process taking place outside the university sector itself – whether in business, government, civil society or elsewhere (see Introduction). Again it is worth emphasising that societal changes are always due to myriad causal influences and university developments. To suppose that academics have some kind of special impact on such multi-varient processes is to envisage a kind of Platonic republic where philosopher kings impose an allegedly well-informed way of doing things on all their fellow citizens. And again we must mention that external research impacts do not necessarily imply positive social welfare gain; all societal changes create winners and losers and have unintended consequences, so that evaluating their net effects is always a non-trivial task.

Governments and research funders, however, often seem to hold to a dangerous illusion, supposing that the causal outcomes of academic work can and should be intensively mapped so as to isolate the specific influence of university research on (positive) external changes. Partly this is because in advanced industrial societies both the academy and wider elites still seem preoccupied with the ‘discovery myth’, in which a lone researcher looking down the barrel of a microscope makes a brilliant discovery that results in an immediate social benefit. This illusion pushes universities to create implausible and over-claiming ‘case studies’ of alleged research impacts, which are now seen in almost all universities’ public relations materials. This approach has also been extensively adopted by UK academic lobby groups, both in the humanities and social sciences (for instance, British Academy, 2010, 2008; Academy of Social Sciences, 2010) and for the sciences (Royal Society, 2009) and elite universities generally (Russell Group, 2010). This ‘fairy tales of influence’ approach cannot help advance our understanding of the critical and systemic roles that higher education now plays in modern social and economic development. By perpetuating myths of determinant individual impacts from academic work all that universities, foundations and research sponsors achieve is to help sustain a naïve and simplistic discourse about how impacts happen and how they contribute to modern social development. Even more extended and properly executed case studies of impacts may not be very persuasive beyond the ‘apt anecdote’ level, because they inherently focus on ‘best practice’ cases, and not the wider research picture (Kitson et al., 2009).

In this chapter we examine and try to understand the pathways by which research and scholarship actually achieves external impacts. We begin by examining the different currents of work inside a single discipline and the varying ways in which these currents help shape social processes outside the university sector. Although in the past most attention has focused on ‘research as discovery’, we argue here that three other elements of disciplinary activity- theoretical integration at the discipline level, applied work and teaching – can have equivalent or even greater effects than discovery.

The influence of any single discipline on society is inherently limited because most problems in business, government and society are ‘joined-up’. These multi-layered problems defy the heavily siloed grid of academic disciplines and knowledge development. However, there are ‘bridging’ processes within or close to the academic sphere where universities and researchers can do much to enhance the rates at which knowledge, ideas, applications and technologies percolate the impacts interface.

Nonetheless, the fundamental consequence of single-discipline processes and relatively weak bridging mechanisms has been that much of the ‘aggregating’ of ideas and solutions takes place outside universities, at what we term the ‘impacts interface’. In advanced industrial societies, this border zone includes a wide range of large and powerful institutions that process Research and Development of many kinds into more integrated, useable and immediately applicable ‘packages’ of ideas, creating ‘value-added’ in the process. Academics and universities have to be realistic about this interface process. In the last section of this chapter we examine the evidence on how extensively academics and university researchers engage in knowledge transfer and impacts-generating activities.

5.1: The origins of impacts within each academic discipline

One of the first stumbling blocks to understanding impact is that many commentators presuppose a direct link between what academics do inside single disciplines and the wider society. Yet academics’ roles are too often rather broadly categorised, in ways that make little distinction between activities and purposes or broader roles. In terms of activities, or the main demands on academics and university researchers’ time, four categories are conventionally distinguished – research, teaching, administration and ‘academic citizenship’. Of these only research and perhaps academic citizenship are widely seen as having any visible effects outside the university sector itself.

In addition to these traditional roles we  can now add a fifth demand on academics’ time, namely engaging in activities to disseminate ideas and explicitly seeking to achieve external impacts. In the UK this aspect of academic activities is now stressed both by research councils funding specific projects, and by the quasi-government agency distributing state financial support across universities and departments. A recent consultation document proposed that a quarter of all state funding for academic research in England should be allocated in the 2014 ‘Research Excellence Framework’ on the basis of how much external ‘impacts’ (construed as quasi-outcomes) have been achieved by universities and departments. In the US, the remit of the National Science Foundation was altered in 1992 to broaden the criteria for research support away from its previous single-minded pursuit of the best intellectual value-added so as to also include the ‘broad interest’ of research for the wider society and economy. However, even this five-fold description of academics’ roles still offers only a very limited view of what it is that academic staff and researchers do, and of how disciplines achieve advances.

Turning to the deeper-lying purposes, rationales or ends of academic work, an influential approach suggested by Boyer (1997) stresses that ‘scholarship’ is not a simple matter of making new discoveries – important though these may be. Rather, intellectual advances in disciplines are inherently bound up with other key functions – including a scholarship of integrating knowledge across disciplines, a scholarship of applying knowledge in academic service, and a scholarship of what he again termed ‘teaching’. However, Boyer’s categories are far too limited for our purposes. For instance, he defined scholarly integration as pooling knowledge across disciplines, while we find that scholarly integration oftentimes occurs at the stage of pulling together ideas and concepts into a coherent ‘world view’ inside single disciplines. Similarly, knowledge development encompassing applications forms a very large part of any discipline’s activities, going far beyond academic service (which we instead separately treat in section 5.2 as a form of ‘bridging’ activity). This is especially the case in disciplines focusing on ‘human-dominated systems’, a broad category that includes engineering, design, IT and computer sciences, and medical sciences along with the social sciences and aspects of the humanities. Finally, the primary intellectual function served by teaching is the ‘renewal of the profession’, a key aspect by which new ideas and innovations are achieved. This involves the sifting out and incorporating of cohorts of new talent into the discipline – a set of activities that includes but also extends far beyond teaching.

In our view the fourfold discovery/integration/application/renewal categories capture essential differences between various types of academic focus and purposes. But since these distinctions are novel in the field (in their extensively revised form here), it is not easy to point to empirical evidence that is organised on exactly the same lines. However, there is a widely used three-categories distinction between ‘basic’ research and ‘applied’ research, plus the intermediate category of ‘user-inspired basic research’.

Combining this radically revised version of Boyer’s categories with the four conventional academic roles yields the overview Figure 5.1. The cell entries here show only one or a few of a larger number of activities (listed in full in Annex 1). We say a little more about the four row variables here below.

Figure 5.1: An overview of how four types of scholarship mesh with the five main demands on academics’ time

Cell entries show only the top one or few of several or many components

 Five main demands on academics' time
Four types of scholarshipResearchAcademic citizenshipAcademic managementTeachingDissemination and impacts work
DiscoveryPrimary researchJournals editing and professional service to the disciplineResearch leadershipSupervising doctorates; training new researchersDisseminating research
IntegrationTheory definition; pooling of ideas; field-defining textbooksReview articles, reviews; conferences; sustaining the 'oral wisdom' of the disciplineFostering a 'research culture' in departments or labsDeveloping less important textbooks and resourcesEnhancing public understanding of the discipline; writing 'cross-over' books
ApplicationInnovations for use, tool-making, solutions- testingAcademic service in government, business or charity/NGO bodiesLiaison with external clients, partners and contactsExecutive education and trainingDirect research for clients
Professional renewalSupervising doctoratesExternal examining and shared curriculum developmentCourse management; examining'Core' teachingLiaison with employers and workplaces


There is nothing so easy as what was discovered yesterday, nor so difficult as what will be discovered tomorrow. Jean Baptiste Biot

Nothing was ever yet done that someone was not the first to do. All good things which exist are the fruits of originality. John Stuart Mill

The forms of scholarship that produce specific ‘new facts’ or original insights, those we associate most closely with innovation, originality and the uncovering of new findings or relationships, are by far the most mythologised, not just in outside views, but within academic professions themselves. The key forms of discovery scholarship include:

  • experimental science and the uncovering or untangling of new relationships and effects under tightly controlled experimental conditions in laboratories. This approach lends itself to a method of reductionism common in the ‘classical’ physical sciences, where the focus is on understanding components at the smallest feasible scale, and where the aggregation of components is well understood or follows relatively simple laws.
  • randomised control trials, which seek to apply an experimental approach to natural, computer, internet, human or societal environments, and where laboratory conditions lack useful replication because multiple causal relationships are in play simultaneously. This approach is associated with the analysis of holistic (often chaotic) phenomena, which cannot be understood as a simple or predictable aggregation of component influences.
  • field trips, where the researcher’s efforts uncover ‘new facts’, such as expeditions to map new species, archaeological ‘digs’ in new terrain, archival research in historical work or literary and cultural studies, and many other related forms of investigative effort.
  • database analysis, where already collected or available information is aggregated, cleaned and analysed in new ways, using new mathematical tools or algorithms, and often drawing on new theories or hypotheses. The scale of databases in the social sciences has mushroomed in the digital era with the growth of new administrative and transactional data heaps, accumulated by governments and corporations (Dunleavy, 2010)
  • new theory developments, ranging from the focused cogitation leading to new maths formulae and theories, through progressively ‘softer’ forms of definite theoretical innovation.

Undeniably some combination of these activities lies at the heart of most academics’ concept of research. An extensive specialist literature also tries to understand the conditions of creativity and ‘breakthrough’ forms of research, especially in the physical sciences and technology. Indeed in many ways this aspect of academic activity is often considered the ‘be-all-and-end-all’ of academia. In the inter-generational division of labour that is often observed in academia, new discovery is often the domain of younger researchers, while older academics tend to focus more on creating the multiple conditions for discovery to happen and on holistic or more systematising contributions, that we consider next.

Core research obviously demands a significant portion of top academics’ time, but it is by no means the only activity they undertake in achieving advances. But in order to do effective discovery research or even just secure a few hours of ‘core’ research time, academics need to create and run well-organised labs and departments, acquire and set-up equipment or access to data, perfect methods (often through trial and error), establish research protocols and ethical permissions, obtain access to relevant survey respondents, organise field trips, establish research traditions and detail institutional expertise and memory, immerse themselves in other people’s forefront research, transfer knowledge, work on publications, organise and attend conferences, develop research grants, and supervise doctorates. These activities are in no way separate from discovery. Rather they all form integral parts of the process of uncovering new knowledge.

In her book, How Institutions Think (1986), the anthropologist Mary Douglas stresses that it is the professions, research laboratories and academic departments, journals, conferences, funding bodies and other related organisations that govern the recognition of ideas in any discipline as novel and worthwhile. Other organisations (many involved in the impacts interface we discuss below) control the rate at which innovations and ‘worthwhile’ discoveries are picked up. In the digital era the scale of such organisational filtering (what Douglas determinedly calls organisational ‘thinking’) is often international, and sometimes global.

It is also worth noting that in the past discovery processes in the physical sciences were far more closely linked to application imperatives than they are today. In the era of the most rapid scientific advances from the 1600s onwards, there have been close and integral linkages between pure and applied science, with the technological spur from practitioner fields influencing new scientific advances. In many contemporary ‘big science’ fields covering natural systems, such as particle physics or astrophysics, this linkage has been decisively severed, and the only conceivable ‘paying customer’ for forefront research has become national governments. Yet in human-dominated systems, a far closer binding of discovery to application persists. The ‘big pharma’ nexus of giant multinational drug companies with medical academics and university hospitals across many countries is perhaps the best example of an essentially complete inter-penetration of industry and academia in the production of new knowledge. But there are also important, very similar clusters in knowledge sectors close to defence industries (such as aerospace and materials science), nuclear energy, bio-sciences, agribusiness and high-end forms of information technology.


Thinking is a struggle for order and at the same time for comprehensiveness. C. Wright Mills

Each scientific research paper is a package of ideas which, when it nestles down in the pre-existing network of ideas, triggers some large or small rearrangements. Mark Buchanan

The processes by which academics absorb, digest, synthesise, and connect knowledge garnered via the discovery process into coherent theoretical and interpretive knowledge frameworks is critical for many reasons. Discovery alone is not easy to make sense of or act on. The modern philosophy of science stemming from Thomas Kuhn (1996) stresses that at many levels (and not just the conventionally understood macro-level), all the sciences and social sciences are shaped by ‘paradigms’, integrating conceptions that help to explain the body of scientific knowledge in the relevant area as a whole. Scientists and academics in any discipline will often tolerate an extensive accumulation of ‘puzzles’ or discoveries inconsistent with the prevailing paradigm, so long as there is not a competing alternative paradigm. An inability to integrate new findings into the existing body of knowledge most commonly creates a sort of side-lining of the ill-fitting results. In ‘hard’ sciences only the production of an alternate synthesis, a new paradigm that can better account for both ‘mainstream’ observations and known but unintegrated puzzles, can shift established ways of thinking within a discipline and beyond to a wider set of specialist users and the public at large.

In many disciplines a general pattern of intellectual controversy prevails, with a currently hegemonic paradigm, that functions as a form of professional ‘conventional wisdom’ or mainstream view, and is critiqued by a ‘legacy’ view that was previously hegemonic, and by one or more new and ‘insurgent’ intellectual approaches. Shifting from STEM disciplines with a ‘normal science’ structure to ‘softer’ sciences with more inter-theoretical debates brings this pattern out more, creating pervasive ‘schools of thought’ controversies. In pure humanities disciplines inter-theoretical struggles define the commanding heights of the discipline, and Collins (1998) suggests that an ‘intellectual law of small numbers’ applies, limiting top-level positions to between two and seven points of view.

The stress we lay here on integration forms of scholarship within each discipline is also a recognition that most advances come out of supportive academic environments in which a particular mix of activities, people, skills and favourable organisational structures encourages radical innovations in knowledge structures and ideas and connections. Perhaps the most productive integrator in modern science history was the Nobel-prize winning physicist, Lord Rutherford, whose skilful direction of laboratories at Manchester and Cambridge helped eleven of his close colleagues to earn the same prize across two ‘miracle’ decades for the expansion of physics as a discipline, from 1898 to 1920.


Knowing is not enough; we must apply.Willing is not enough: we must do. Johannes Goethe

Applied forms of scholarship in the modern world cover a wide range of activities where basic theory and knowledge already established is applied to unique physical or social situations in a differentiated way that takes full account of the uniqueness of a specific environment, system interconnections or multiple constraints. Hence the scholarship of application is fundamentally about the differentiation of basic knowledge and research so that it can be meaningfully used in highly complex, ‘real-world’ situations in which there are dozens, hundreds or thousands of factors that need to be considered and evaluated as a whole so as to reach an acceptable solution.

In concrete terms, the scholarship of application extends across both a substantial share of university sector work in every discipline, and across applied university research on externally-defined problems, consultancy in government and corporations, design work and prototyping. The complex development of modern civilisations entails that an ever-increasing proportion of academic work is now concerned with ‘human-dominated systems’, such as the medical sciences, engineering and computer sciences, design disciplines and the social sciences. In such fields the vast bulk of work may fall in or close to the application category, since the development of new knowledge may not change the ‘first principles’ science base much. Instead it primarily extends the remit of basic knowledge to constantly developing forms of human-generated artefacts and social situations.

The scholarship of application is particularly important in today’s world when businesses need new things to create competitive advantages; when medicines ‘wear out’ as the organisms targeted develop resistance; and when public policies must constantly develop in an ‘agile’ fashion to counteract the capacity of civil society to find countervailing ways to respond to government interventions. One of the marks of an advanced industrial society is the existence of a huge knowledge inventory that contains multiple possible solutions for myriads of actual or possible civilisation-related problems. Only a small proportion of this knowledge is normally drawn down and used at any given time, but advanced industrial societies have a capacity to rapidly access (or develop) many appropriate solutions, even for radically new or highly intermittent problems.


He [or she] who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he [or she] who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. Thomas Jefferson

Finding new talent to develop and replace senior scholars is a constant task in each academic discipline and professional groups linked to them. The scholarship of renewal inevitably absorbs a large part of academics’ time, and connects in integral ways to the vitality of discovery, integration and application. Key tasks include developing research-led teaching and helping to supervise and socialise PhD students. Bringing young researchers into the field is closely bound with the management of research laboratories and academic departments, together with the creation of inter-university institutions and linkages that can sustain a decentralised process of talent management. The close involvement of senior academics is essential to how all these processes work out.

The varying successes of different universities and different countries across disciplines closely reflects their levels of investment in renewal processes and their ability to master the sophisticated knowledge transfer and knowledge management approaches needed for disciplines to grow and flourish. The scholarship of renewal also has a strong and slow-to-change influence on overall academic ‘culture’. In many science disciplines it also has close links with the culture of government and corporate research laboratories, through them exerting a key influence on overall national R & D achievements.

More broadly though, renewal activities are constantly shaped by the demands of the wider economy and society, since in every discipline academic departments necessarily provide education for undergraduate and even Masters students who do not necessarily go into universities or even other research occupations. Especially for disciplines dealing with ‘human-dominated systems’, that are in practice almost wholly ‘applied’ in orientation, there is no hard and fast line between what is needed for outside employment or vocation and what is needed for academic study. Currently in the US more than half of undergraduates complete vocationally orientated degrees, rather than traditional, academically-defined qualifications. The necessary interaction of academic departments with employers in such subjects entails an extended liaison between academics or researchers and businesses or government.

The scholarship of renewal also carries with it a stream of impacts that are not easily recordable or traceable in the electronic footprints of the digital era, but are nonetheless real – namely the carrying over of education and socialisation from university courses to other sectors, by students moving out of universities and into different occupations. These effects and consequences do not feature further in this analysis, but they are nonetheless large-scale and important ones, and they operate over considerable periods of time.

We close this section by putting together an interim picture of how academic work achieves impacts, as shown in Figure 5.2. Essentially, in each discipline the four forms of scholarship interact with each other, originating influence flows (shown as the left-to-right arrows in the Figure) towards the impacts interface, which for the moment we leave as a black box. Behind the interface on the right we assume that modern society can be thought of as a set of relatively autonomous systems. For our purposes the three most important are business and economic systems, government agencies and public policy systems, and media, cultural and civil society systems. These are the ultimate targets for academic work to achieve external impacts.

Figure 5.2: How key forms of scholarship within each academic discipline begin to achieve external impacts

We hypothesise that academic and research work in any single discipline characteristically generates three main impact-producing flows of influence.

First, we expect that applied work in the discipline will normally have the largest direct external impact, shown as the thickest arrow from the application box to the impacts interface. The volume of connection reflects both the substantial importance of application scholarship relative to other elements in every discipline, and the greater closeness of the connections here that link universities to external economy, government and civil society.

The second aspect of scholarship that generates external impacts is likely to be integration, the synthesising of new discoveries into existing knowledge and the paradigm changes and smaller transformations that occur in how the discipline thinks. Again a large part of any discipline’s academic activity is integration. And changes here have a wider general resonance in shaping the knowledge base and the organisational culture of the discipline and professional, business or government sectors to which it is closely linked, than any other aspects of scholarship.

Third, as a result we should generally expect that discovery will be a much more slender and perhaps intermittent set of influences outside the university sector itself. Many academic discoveries are inwards-facing to a discipline, concerning the ‘swarms’ of methods, techniques, equipments, routines, and standard operating procedures of academia itself. Hence, in any discipline, relatively few ‘discoveries’ can be successfully explained or ‘sold’ to an elite outside audience. Even fewer can reach general media or achieve any widespread dissemination (such as the results of new medical or drugs trials).

Conflicting results and scientific controversies often take the edge off initially promising new findings, almost invariably in the direction of problems and possible solutions being more complex than they may appear at first sight. Discovery-learning by societies and social groups (for example, in the spread of new social practices, new internet tools or new environmental threats) often outpaces academic knowledge, meaning that researchers are frequently scrabbling to understand the surprising and unforeseen changes in social practices and even natural environments, often with no special claim to expertise.

Across most of the social sciences (and some parts of all human-dominated systems) the possibility or wide relevance of the ‘discovery’ form of scholarship (especially the concept of ‘breakthrough’ research) can also be questioned. Development following social ‘laws’ authoritatively validated by ‘professional social enquiry’ is rarely (if ever) an appropriate model for the social sciences (Lindblom and Cohen, 1979). Instead professional investigation tends to form, at best, scattered pinpricks of high quality knowledge that must be joined-up by what Lindblom and Cohen term ‘ordinary knowledge’: this often includes, but also often contradicts ‘common-sense’, and always extends far beyond it into many areas of specialised (even esoteric) knowledge that are not themselves scientifically validated.

The internal arrows inside the discipline box in Figure 5.2 also suggest that there will typically be three strong internal feedback loops. The closest and largest volume feedback is likely to be from discovery scholarship to integration, as new results and relationships expand and morph accepted understanding in the discipline. In turn, integration activities mostly select (or discard) avenues in discovery, while new theories, ideas, memes and juxtapositions of knowledge suggest a flow of new experiments, field investigations or data analyses that can be attempted. Similarly, we expect to see a constant and relatively direct feedback loop operating between discovery and application activities. In many STEM disciplines there are possibilities for patenting processes and applications, extending also to spin-out companies from universities, and increasingly facilitated by expert sections of university administrations or specialist consultancies. Since strong incentives may attach to converting discoveries into applications here, the push is especially strong. In turn, new developments often suggest and spur new patterns of investigation of previously accepted knowledge. The third feedback loop operates from discovery to integration and then via professional renewal back to discovery, with the training of new students (and especially PhDs) for positions in and outside universities functioning as a key stage at which new potentials for discovery are originated.

Essentially, new cohorts of students bring in new directions for discovery scholarship, while student-based external linkages with industry and society, and with other countries, sustain these evolving avenues of discovery. Plato famously commented that younger people ‘are closer to ideas’ than the old, and younger people have lesser stakes in established ways of doing things and are more willing to innovate than their elders who may be set in their ways. So it is no accident that in many disciplines student-linked and teaching-linked innovations are important stimuli for discovery scholarship – especially in some human-dominated systems where the scope for setting in train ‘social learning’ is strong, such as information technologies.

Finally, the vertical positioning of the three arrows in Figure 5.2 is perfectly deliberate, clustering opposite the economic systems box. We expect discovery scholarship to have most impact on business alone, partly because there are more immediate or potentially ‘cashable’ gains feasible here. As a result corporations expend significant resources in monitoring disciplines where the predominant patterns of knowledge advancement mean that such discoveries occur most often, especially in STEM disciplines. Governments generally follow suit less intensively and then mostly in defence or medical areas. We expect applications scholarship to have broader influences on both business and public policy. And we expect integration forms of scholarship to have most influence on cultural systems, media, civil society and business.

5.2: The role of joined-up scholarship

Thus have I made, as it were, a small globe of the intellectual world, as truly and faithfully as I could discover. Francis Bacon

Academic work is highly siloed into narrowly specialised disciplines and sub-disciplines. For instance, for this study we counted 44 significant and organised fields and sub-fields in the UK social sciences alone. Looking across all academic disciplines, the number of subject areas is set at just over 170 across 19 subject groupings by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in the UK.  This highly differentiated grid of knowledge specialisms fits very poorly with the general need of business or government decision-makers to integrate and aggregate knowledge at much higher levels of generality, and to consider all aspects of an issue in making a multi-criteria choice of strategy or response. Almost all acute business, government and civil society concerns involve ‘joined-up’ and inherently multi-dimensional problems. The result is that academics are often happy to advise governments or corporations on a particular problem within the ‘comfort zone’ of their specific discipline area. But characteristically they are relatively inexperienced in working across discipline boundaries, and are often reluctant to bring their expertise to bear on or comment about closely related issues and areas outside their particular academic purview.

For example, consider how governments might solicit advice from universities on an over-arching problem like the growth of obesity in modern societies. In the UK ministers commissioned a specially formed team of civil servants (under the label of the Foresight programme) – to bring together a range of physical scientists, experts in nutrition and food components, and medical and physiological researchers with expertise in eating behaviours and exercise, to work with psychologists, sociologists, behavioural researchers and social and public policy experts – in order to try and identify a strategy for improving government’s response. In interviews with participants we found that this joint-working was almost uniformly novel for the academics involved (and for other researchers in different parts of central government and the health service), and was predominantly welcomed. The same was true of eight other major Foresight projects we examined. In other countries, national academies of science tend to form the nearest equivalent of Foresight studies, hence they are often more academic-dominated. So while they respond to the same need for joining-up knowledge, they perhaps less often bridge across major discipline groupings.

There are three main ways in which academics and researchers currently combat the siloing of academic disciplines so as to produce more joined-up scholarship:

  • bridging scholarship is cross-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary work that explicitly seeks to improve inter-professional communication within groups of academic fields;
  • integration that focuses mainly in the role of individual universities in creating particular syntheses of academic contributions, sustaining distinctive combinations of academic cultures at each main university site; and
  • academic service, by which we mean the pro-bono or paid-for direct inputs made by academics and university researchers to the operations of the  government and business sectors or civil society bodies.

Figure 5.3 shows how these forms of scholarship mesh with the five activity streams that absorb most of academics’ time. We discuss these different forms of joining-up in turn.

Figure 5.3: An overview of how three types of joined-up scholarship mesh with the five main demands on academics’ time

 Five main demands on academics’ time
Three types of joined-up scholarshipResearchAcademic citizenshipAcademic managementTeachingDissemination and impacts work
BridgingMeta-theories; cross-disciplinary knowledge integrationCross-disciplinary communicationChannelling broader intellectual changes to research labs and departmentsPedagogic aspects of cross-disciplinary ‘waves’Expandingthe ‘public understanding of science’ or social science
University-level integrationPersonal interactions at local level creating bridging across academic disciplinesKnowledge exchanges operating through university governance and priority-settingKnowledge exchanges operating through university governance and priority-settingCommunity, alumni and donor linkages facilitating knowledge and resource exchanges
Academic serviceMembership of innovating state investigatory bodies; cross-disciplinary applied research for government or corporate clientsMembership of more routine state advisory, funding or investigatory bodies; professional serviceResearch liaison with clients handling ‘joined-up’ problemsCross-disciplinary training or development, especially for government or corporationsUsing research to ‘nudge’ behaviour changes with government; developing cultural events

Cell entries show only the top one or few of several or many components

Bridging Scholarship

This type of academic work operates across academic disciplines in ways that increase inter-professional communication, define meta-theories and help to shape wider academic meta-cultures (such as the meaning of ‘science’ in western countries). (This is often what Boyer seems to have had in mind when he spoke about ‘integration’.) At the meta-level, bridging entails experienced academics thinking across disciplines and engaging in activities that lead to broad shifts of academic fashions over time. Key aspects of this form of scholarship are the ‘waves’ of ideas affecting multiple disciplines either simultaneously or sequentially, such as chaos theory (which led to a change of focus that spanned across many STEM subjects), post-structuralism and post-modernism (which washed through many literary, cultural and ‘soft’ social science disciplines), or rational choice approaches (which spread from mainstream economics to colonise many social sciences and parts of the humanities). Developing the pedagogy appropriate for such waves to reach new disciplines is often a controversial point, where bridging scholarship can play an influential role in opening doors to curriculum changes. Bridging scholarship certainly stems closely from our much deeper but single-discipline use of ‘integration’ in the previous section, as Figure 6.4 shows.

Figure 5.4: How joined-up scholarship adds on to single-discipline effects in generating impacts from academic research

Those academics and researchers who move most deeply into cross-disciplinary areas and who make the most impact there are almost uniformly people with a long track-record of theoretical and integration contributions in their own discipline. This group extends from science- or university-based “public intellectuals” at one end of the spectrum (such as Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking in recent years), through to well-known scientific discoverers or academic innovators with a penchant for thinking more widely and an enhanced openness to other discipline’s contributions at the other (such as Einstein in the early twentieth century, or Richard Feynmann and Stephen J. Gould in its later decades).

There are strong age-related influences on who gets to do bridging scholarship. Younger staff tend to do more detailed research, and are often more technically competent at the expense of having a more narrow vision. Academics in their mid-30s to mid-50s, who often have more managerial roles, tend to focus on broader themes and ideas. Their experience and reputation can be better assessed externally, but they may also fall behind the technical curve of the newest developments in their area. So bridging scholarship tends to be undertaken chiefly by a smallish group of relatively senior and more research-orientated staff, who can combine mastery of the research frontier in their disciplines with the necessary experience of their own and other disciplines to enlarge their intellectual horizons. They have the strongest incentives to engage with broader theories, ideas and issues – usually stemming from integration scholarship within their own discipline. Because joined-up scholarship and cross-disciplinary work tends to be undertaken by well-known authors and researchers it may have disproportionately large effects in achieving influence, even though it remains fairly small in overall volume.

Local integration by universities

A large part of the unique value-added created by combining many disciplines together from universities stems from the many effects of the knowledge exchanges, personal interactions and intellectual networks that are thus created. As Figure 5.3 shows, a key foundation of this phenomenon in different research fields stems from academics in different academic fields getting to meet each other beyond their own departmental or research lab boundaries. Such activities unleash synergistic and often serendipitous effects that include spreading awareness of new theories, ideas, methods and empirical results beyond normal pathways.

How much of such interchange do universities actually sustain, given their characteristic patterns of organisation? Sceptics might argue at this point that most universities remain heavily siloed on disciplinary lines. Relatively few have the strong cross-disciplinary linkages such as those produced by the collegiate systems at Oxford and Cambridge universities – where groups of academics drawn from all the different academic disciplines organise most teaching at the college scale and dine frequently with each other. Most universities instead have an apparatus of faculties and sometimes ‘schools’ overlaying strongly independent and single-discipline based departments, perhaps supplemented by more cross-disciplinary patterns of organisation in ‘professional’ schools for medicine, business, public policy or environmental studies. Seminars, conferences and personal collaborations on research projects and grant bids may often help to produce knowledge exchanges and create the beachheads for wider bridging scholarship influences to affect new areas, but mostly within faculties or connected fields rather than between distant disciplines.

However, university-level linkages are potent precisely because they are often multi-dimensional and most academic staff will have local knowledge of what colleagues in other departments and faculties do that has been gathered over years of experience.  The involvement of staff in university governance and committees tends to produce a lot of knowledge exchange, since this is how the university gets to set priorities, judge promotions, develop academic strategies and refine and improve its research performance and ability to project achievements to external audiences. Senior staff who are most active in academic citizenship and in university management are often the most informed about and alert to intellectual changes in disciplines neighbouring their own faculty.

Teaching interactions on genuinely joint degrees (those which are cross-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary) certainly may generate very sustained contacts across the departments involved, which are boosted by regular student interactions with the groups of teachers involved. By contrast, teaching involvements on the common modular degrees have much smaller effects, since the burdens of integrating knowledge are born almost entirely by students, while the academic departments involved continue to teach in a single-discipline way.

How much interchange of ideas and joined-up development of knowledge can be sustained by such research, governance, academic citizenship and teaching linkages? It is certainly a minority activity in what universities do compared with the bulk of single-discipline, single-department processes. Yet, there are good theory and empirical reasons to believe that the value-added of this extra edge is important. In social network theory, there are ‘small worlds’ models in which a close-knit web of very restricted and local linkages is supplemented by some additional longer links that are scattered randomly across the network or occur only episodically in time. The presence of very few of such long linkages between dissimilar parts of the network can dramatically expand the speed and extent of communication that occurs, especially cutting down the time needed for messages in one part of the network to reach all parts of it (Watts, 2003).

And in empirical terms, inter-disciplinary linkages and university-wide organisational cultures seems to play an important part in defining what makes one university different from another. Although there are very important resource differences that separate, say, Ivy League institutions from less well-known American universities, there are also many other intellectual influences and characteristics of their academic cultures that are not resource-linked and that impart to each university its own specific character or academic personality, its own style of doing common academic activities and its own traditions, institutional memories and capabilities. Similarly in the UK and Europe, different types of universities have different qualities, often located in their varying mix of ‘strong’ disciplines, which characteristically tend to dominate university governance and academic cultures.

These differences are especially important in the final area of the university-level integration row in Figure 5.3, namely how universities create local interchanges of ideas and external linkages to their alumni, donors, funders, external partners and external communities. For most universities in most countries these groups tend to strongly overlap each other, with all of them being geographically proximate – in the same city and region as the university is located. In some federal countries there are close university linkages to state governments in federations, as in Germany, China and American public universities. Here the ties of funding and regional elite linkages are especially strong, and universities often put in extra effort to strengthen local or regional partnerships with business and to fit their curriculum with regional needs. The growing importance of regional-level knowledge transfers in the modern network economy has strengthened university incentives here (Christopherson et al., 2008).

At the other end of the spectrum are major universities whose alumni and donors may spread very widely nationally or internationally, sometimes complemented by a strong regional/city base. However, these institutions may be geographically in a particular locality but not really forming part of it in intellectual terms. Many of the top ‘world’ universities have particularly strongly separated catchments for alumni/donors and community groups, and their corporate relations and external fund-raising efforts are highly non-local and very developed functions. The effort to communicate what the university is doing in coherent terms often contributes strongly to the development of joined-up knowledge within the university itself.

Academic and professional service

Many mid-career academics take part in public life by applying their professional judgement and knowledge in a wider context beyond the borders of their academic discipline or university. Most of these activities are pro bono, either undertaken for no pay at all or in return for expenses or for modest fees that only partly compensate those involved for the time absorbed. These important activities include: serving on the professional body in the discipline or in ‘practitioner’ occupational or industry groups; becoming a member of cross-disciplinary professional bodies (such as academies of sciences, social sciences and arts in many countries); becoming a member of government commissions, boards and official advisory committees; and holding seats on charitable boards and foundations. On some occasions, government departments will turn to reputable academics as a sort of filter to whom they will engage with in order to solve a particular policy challenge.

Some sociologists of professionalism argue that there has been a socially significant decline of ‘private practice’ professionalism across many key fields of social life under twin pressures:

  1. the growth of ‘big science’, which makes partnership forms of private practice less feasible, since only large corporations and national governments can now afford the equipment costs of building even a core capacity in the field, producing a decline of independent professionalism in favour of ‘state patronage’ or ‘corporate patronage’ instead (Johnson, 1977); and
  2. the conversion of many large ‘partnership’ structures in the private sector into large (often multinational) corporations, as a result of globalisation and scale-inclusion factors – a change that has been especially marked in many knowledge-intensive fields such as accountancy, legal services, architecture, design and management consultancy.

In this analysis, university researchers and academics (along with other quasi-government professional staff, like government scientists and laboratories, government economists, lawyers, doctors and social researchers) are increasingly salient for governments and civil society in replacing the vanishing private practice professionals as key societal sources of relatively autonomous knowledge development and independent (less potentially self-interested) advice (Dunleavy, 1982). In this view university academics bring to public services key and trustworthy expertise in dispassionately monitoring trends, disinterestedly refereeing controversies and ‘speaking truth to power’ (Wildavsky, 1987).

A recent study of ‘the UK public elite’ (covering 187 different central government ‘quangos’) found that one in fourteen elite members (7 per cent) were academics (Griffiths, 2010). Figure 5.5 indicates that this influential group showed a strong bias towards senior academics (this is highly expected, given evidence on academic reputations analysed in Chapter 3). Over two-fifths of the academics involved came from research intensive universities, a tenth from most teaching-based and recently formed universities, and just over a quarter from institutions in-between these two poles. Almost half the academics were involved in the governance of the public bodies funding and regulating universities, a quarter in cultural bodies, one in six in public scientific bodies, and the smallest group (under a tenth) in regional or local bodies (reflecting the strong centralisation of the UK state) (Griffiths, 2010, pp. 745-6).

Figure 5.5: The seniority of academics involved in UK central government quasi-government agencies

 University funding bodiesWider government bodiesAll bodies
Top academics (managing universities)282124
Heads of department151213
Number of academics80131232

Source: Computed from Griffith, 2010, p.740, Table 1.

Notes: The category ‘top academics managing universities’ includes vice-chancellors and pro vice-chancellors (i.e. the number one or two officials in British university hierarchies) and the deans of faculties.

Different ways of assessing the influence of academics suggest alternative estimates of the importance of academic service, however. For instance, in the UK the government (acting in the Queen’s name) awards New Years honours to people who have made noteworthy contributions to national life. This captures a much broader concept of academic service, as one that is less central-political and top-organisational and one that pays a lot more attention to work at a number of levels, including national, regional and local service, plus work in charitable, philanthropic and community dimensions, as well as unusual economic or policy advice contributions.

Academics also often fill a wide range of roles in the economic life of advanced industrial nations, especially serving as non-executive directors on company boards,  especially in relation to

(a)    spin-out and ‘starburst’ companies linked to universities and their science parks, mostly in STEM discipline areas, often with multiple current or former university scientists or engineers serving as directors;
(b)   non-university-linked companies where senior academics as board members assist with technical assurance and scrutiny;
(c)    boards with business school academics, or academic economists, lawyers or social researchers as members, providing market-orientated or organization-orientated expertise.

We consider some evidence that bears on the scale and importance of these activities for the UK in section 5.4.

Other forms of academic service include briefing media and extended dissemination work, serving on the boards of charities, foundations and not-for-profit bodies, and working with cultural organisations. A recent study for the British Academy reviewed many different activities here, and noted that humanities scholars especially often play an important role in working with major museums, art galleries, theatres and other cultural organisations in preparing major cultural events – such as those marking cultural anniversaries, providing broadcast media programmes and in co-operation with other institutions sustaining major lines of cultural development that involve mass audiences (LSE Public Policy Group, 2008, pp. 51; and 2008a, pp. 39-40, 65-6).

Looking overall at Figure 5.4, adding in the three joined-up scholarship influences serves to double the number of ways in which academic work reaches the impacts interface. We suggest that the new linkages are at least as significant in scale as the direct impact of discovery research from single disciplines, but are somewhat less extensive than influence flows from integration scholarship, and hence also much less extensive than the influence flows arising from applied scholarship.

Bridging scholarship and academic service for other kinds of institutions and companies both tend to operate at more central or national levels in the public policy realm, the economy and civil society. Top-level academics and researchers often have a strong push towards international-level developments. However, in large federal countries with state/provincial/regional governments, and more widely in countries with well-developed regional elite networks (such as in France, Italy and Germany) there are often strong counterpart sub-national systems of academic service and sometimes also bridging scholarship networks. In the UK, these elements are best developed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, with less strong counterparts in Wales, and in London’s metropolitan/regional government. However, the regional or local integration of scholarship provided by universities is a pervasive feature across all OECD countries, and is clearly accentuated wherever coherent regional or local elites and distinctive languages or cultures add multiplier effects, for instance, in the Basque country in Spain. More generally, small countries operating in world markets tend to make better use of their slender academic and researcher resources because they face a ‘group jeopardy’ problem that induces the wider community to pull together to stabilise and fosters national economic progress (Katzenstein, 1985).

By contrast, larger dominant or formerly dominant countries (such as the US, Britain or France) seem to experience intra-academia competition (often highly adversarial) for influence over policy-makers and social elites. Especially in the social sciences, governments in these countries often behave as if they can afford to strongly filter academic advice on partisan lines by alternating (left/right or liberal/conservative) political elites. Hence, at any given time large countries seem to be more likely to have a large ‘insider’ group of academics and researchers favoured by the government, and another large ‘outsider’ group of excluded academics and researchers, whom the government politicians largely ignore or discount as being oppositional, ‘unconstructive’ or ideologically suspect. In the US this effect is mostly marked in the executive branch, and the structures of Congress that tend to require that new US policy has ‘supermajority’ support to blur legislative politics’ barriers (Saeki, 2010). Meanwhile, at the state level political control is more mixed and the logics of academic service tend to resemble more that of a ‘small country.’

5.3: Understanding the impacts interface

Many of the nation’s most influential reports are little more than junk science. US National Education Policy Center (2011)

Ideas hardly ever travel on a linear path from A to B, and knowledge is rarely transferred directly from original innovator (or inventor) to ultimate end-user. Instead advanced societies have developed intermediaries such as think-tanks and consultancy firms whose role it is to absorb the reams of information coming out of academic disciplines and other sources and present cogent analyses for interested parties. They simplify, re-process, rearrange, aggregate and re-package ideas and information so as to more effectively or persuasively communicate information, ideas or technical expertise to target groups. In the process these intermediary organisations and actors almost universally seek both to add their own ‘value-added’ and to receive a return for their costs, time and investments.  However, some intermediaries may also strip ideas and evidence from their essential context; over-simplify or aggregate ideas and evidence in careless ways; and introduce the kind of key distortions that can occur at any communications interface.

Universities, departments and academic researchers often dislike having to rely on mediated communication of their ideas in this way for two reasons. First, they see themselves as the original inventors of or investors in particular experiments, techniques, ideas or innovations, who risk being ‘ripped off’ or exploited by late-in-the-game but better-connected middlemen. Why should our work, universities often lament, be so extensively a means for generating returns to intermediaries who have not paid for it? How can we get rid of or displace intermediaries, and communicate more directly with end-users ourselves? To add insult to injury, while academics see themselves as scrupulous in acknowledging sources and influences in their citations, many of the intermediaries who pick up and deploy university knowledge are cavalier in their treatment of sources. They are seen as credit-claiming sharks or pirates, who are adept at re-labelling other people’s knowledge as if it were their own.

Secondly, universities and academics dislike the extra elements that intermediaries add in achieving communication, viewing them often as ordinary-language simplifications of complex materials that verge into ‘bowdlerisation’ or mis-representation. Similarly academics and universities often see the ‘value-added’ elements that many intermediaries seek to add as illegitimate, which mixes up scientifically-proven results or academically-validated knowledge with proprietary, partisan or otherwise tendentious ‘ordinary knowledge’ ideas and information. This linking of value-added elements and academic-established information with extras also provides much of the basis of the branding, privatisation or ‘proprietorisation’ of knowledge that often sees intermediaries claiming credit for innovations or suppressing or side-lining the academic role in knowledge-creation. Two particular kinds of intermediaries figure largely in these worries and complaints, namely consultancy firms in business, technology and public management, who barter proprietary knowledge directly into corporate income and profits; and think tanks across the public and social policy spheres who aggregate ideas into implausible ‘best practice’ recipes and who can convert publicity into corporate funding support.

Figure 5.6: Looking inside the impacts interface

Yet this impacts interface is too developed and important in its own right for such hostile characterisations to be accepted at face value. In advanced industrial societies the diversity and extent of the institutions and organisations that transmit academic ideas to the rest of society is too great to be some kind of accident or a dispensable set of processes. In the two-dimensional representation shown in Figure 5.6, we cannot effectively capture the multi-varied ways in which knowledge transfer connections are established, for instance, with consultancies often influencing public policy and media coverage as well as linking to businesses. Nonetheless placing interface elements in Figure 5.6 does shows their primary role and the organising frame is useful for exploring each of them in greater depth.

In the central economic zone the key interface components are:-

  • Consultancies, which may range from highly specialised scientific or technical firms with wholly legitimate value-added expertise, through to the very large, global firms in accounting and management consultancy and legal services. They value academic knowledge quite highly where it can create a competitive edge, a knowledge advantage or a knowledge-application insight that can help persuade large industrial or service companies, or governments, to keep outsourcing operations to the consultancy. In the STEM disciplines there can be a strong inter-penetration of particular industries, end-users and consultancies with relevant university departments, especially those close to the cutting edge of technology and other scientific fields for industry. Across the social sciences, major consultancies in accountancy, economics, marketing and business or government organisation maintain a broad sweeping surveillance of new developments and academic ‘memes’ that might acquire future business or sales value in competitive markets.
  • Major corporations with strong stakes in particular STEM disciplines have the resources to license technologies and techniques developed in university laboratories, and often maintain regular funding and personnel exchange links with close academic partners. Where iterative contacts occur then formal profit-sharing and licensing agreements can create stable relations.
  • Entrepreneurs, especially those with a university background and the increasing numbers of leading figures who started their business careers at university, do not have the search capacity of large corporations, but do have personal contacts in key niches they specialise in, and the capacity to act fast with much lower influence and decision costs than in larger companies. Hence entrepreneurs (and private venture capitalists) often invest most speedily in new techniques and pick up innovative ideas.
  • Professions across a wide range of subjects have close relations with university academics and researchers, especially in occupational fields where corporate dominance is less prevalent, such as medicine, law, architecture and design.
  • Specialist close-to-business media, such as the trade press, media directed at executives and professionals and business TV play a key role in picking up and mediating key academic developments, both in STEM areas and in business schools, marketing, economics and organisational management areas.

In the public policy zone at the bottom of Figure 5.6, key actors include

  • Policy communities, linking politicians, professions and government bureaucracies in closely-bound networks, perhaps divided on opposing ‘advocacy coalition’ lines, but regularly interacting to set detailed debates and lines of development. Policy communities are key channels by which civil servants and public sector officials update their ideas and monitor new developments in academic knowledge.
  • Government professions (such as government scientists, lawyers, economists and social researchers) are key providers of information for evidence-based policy-making, and essential conduits between academia and executive decision-makers, supplemented by the networks of government advisory bodies and committees discussed above, where academics and officials meet extensively in person.
  • Think tanks are increasingly influential ideas aggregators, drawing mostly on academic research in different forms but marrying this search-and-represent mission with light touch ‘best practice’ research and examples gathering, and a flexible, agile style of acting as a government interlocutor for broadening the information base of political debates. Think tanks are in many ways the opposite of academia, often appearing as rather generalist information-and evidence-scavengers, but with excellent communication, dissemination and public relations skills that academics rarely have time to develop. However, in social science fields they have internalised an important lesson, that any given ‘solution’ for policy problems is likely to have evanescent effectiveness and hence will need to be constantly renewed or reappraised.
  • NGOs, interest groups and pressure groups tend to use university research in a more episodic way, selecting evidence to reinforce political campaigns but often relying on general news media or specialist policy media to alert them, rather than regularly scanning the research landscape.
  • Specialist ‘close to policy’ media are very important in government sector management and decision-making, and have greatly expanded their coverage of university-based research and ideas, partly responding to universities’ increased expertise in generating press releases and engaging in dissemination. Government officials and professionals are uniformly graduates, and increasingly have postgraduate degrees also – so that their appetite for and capacity to absorb applied academic themes and innovations is considerable.

Lastly, in Figure 5.6 the civil society zone includes

  • General media, which have expanded greatly with the development of internet communications and 24-hour news channels and has become less ‘mass media’ and more specialist or segmented in character as media channels have multiplied and the capacity to serve smaller audiences has increased.
  • Creative, arts and design, and cultural industries (such as music, theatre, film and video, painting, sculpture, literature, and architecture) are much more closely linked to academia than in the past, partly because of the growth of applied academic work, and partly because they have become far more uniformly graduate areas than back in the 1960s, for example. Creative and cultural industries have also been extensively influenced by meta-theory forms of bridging scholarship, which artists, designers and innovators in many fields have found useful in sparking changes and carrying forward debates and artistic dialectics. And the shift of all creative and cultural activities online and into digital forms has had wide repercussions, advancing the capacity to record and study art and design more comprehensively.
  • The extensive specialist media close to these sectors has an increasing appetite for university-generated content and ideas, for many of the same reasons that apply to the business/trade and to specialist close-to-policy media.
  • Social policy NGOs, charities, foundations, etc. operating in less partisan and more consensual ways attract a lot of participation by academics, both on their controlling committees and at regional and local levels. The tend to make rather specific use of academic research, especially across the social sciences and law, mainly as a key (free) evidence base to sustain their campaigning at low cost. Philanthropic foundations’ giving support for NGOs and pressure groups, especially the countervailing funders and backers enhancing the representation of the poorer and least advantaged social groups, and backing medical research, like investing in university research, and form long-term links in a few STEM and medicine areas. But most NGOs, charities and self-help groups lack the resources to sustain regular surveillance of relevant academic work. They often extensively rely on individual researchers and academics in their membership to keep the organization posted as part of their pro bono activities, although their press offices can pick up and promote research they see as especially helpful to them.

It may be helpful to take an extreme example of how the impacts interface can operate in a highly industrialised and inter-penetrated form, where economic, regulatory and academic interests and specialist intermediaries are closely meshed together. The development of new drugs is dominated by ‘big pharma’ companies which invest extensively in laboratory research in universities and in academic hospitals mounting drug trials. Academics winning funding for drugs trials play a key role in designing studies, ensuring ethical clearances, securing patient involvement and implementing protocols. Nowadays this usually requires multi-country implementations by large teams of medical academics, so as to facilitate later global regulatory approvals. Increasingly, it is open to question how many of the articles on drug and related treatment regimes appearing in medical journals have actually been written at all by the university hospital doctors named as authors. Big pharma companies increasingly employ specialist firms (called medical communication agencies) staffed with ranks of PhD-qualified writers and editors. The writers receive the raw data from drugs trials and fashion them into the required 3,000 words format for medical journals. Highly skilled specialist editors then ensure publication in the most prestigious journals feasible – including getting material translated into different languages and tailoring it to fit different journal styles and requirements across countries. Writers and editors also prepare the academics’ high-powered presentations for conferences and accompanying dissemination materials. And corporate staff plus agency writers will accompany the medics involved to conferences to garner reactions and counter any criticisms. A typical big pharma multinational will have its medical communication agency maintain a vast database of tens or hundreds of different articles and review articles and notes that are ongoing at any one time. Yet the papers in question will appear under the names of a wide variety of medical academics, who will often do little more than read, sign off and possibly amend the work at the final writing and submission stages.

This extreme example of academic research being absorbed into and transformed by economic and governmental pressures is, of course, highly unusual. But it serves to highlight the strength, depth and apparently ineluctable nature of the many forces that have increased the complexity of the impacts interface in the last two decades. However lamentable or even repugnant some of these developments may be, academics and universities must recognise that these social processes are not going to become less complex over time. We explore in Chapter 9 whether there are things that universities can themselves do to foster ‘disintermediation’ processes (‘cutting out the middle man’) analogous to the digital disintermediation processes in private sector commerce. But here we close by stressing the strong casual reasons that lie behind a more complex and articulated impacts interface, and the importance of universities and academics working with a differentiated and realistic notion of what influence they can acquire by working in tandem with interface organisations, and what they can hope to achieve directly or working alone.

5.4: How far do academics and researchers undertake activities likely to generate external impacts?

Recent investigations of how far university researchers engage in impacts-related work and interventions has often been conducted under the rather tendentious label of ‘knowledge transfer’ activities (often shortened to KT, or KTE for KT exchange). The problem here is that there is a presumption that ‘knowledge’ sits in the university sector or is generated solely or pre-eminently in higher education institutions before being shipped across to external sectors of society. Yet we stress instead that the impacts interface involves interactions and two-way flows of communication. For instance, when a business poses a specific problem that generates successful applied scholarship or academic research, there is no sense in which ‘knowledge transfer’ is one-way. Instead, across the impacts interface knowledge of different kinds flows both ways.

With this caveat in mind, it is nonetheless very useful to survey the existing evidence, which mainly derives from asking academics in surveys to itemise their recent activities that bear most closely on achieving external impacts or ‘knowledge transfer’. Figure 5.7 shows data drawn from two surveys undertaken by researchers in Cambridge, with different samples of UK academics spread across all disciplines, but with a larger sample size in 2009 than in 2008. The earlier survey also covered a set of disciplines that was more science and technology orientated, whereas the later survey’s sample was more carefully drawn so as to represent all disciplines. The information here is self-reported and is a fairly limited measure, since an activity is counted once for each respondent whether it occurs once in the relevant period (‘the last three years’) or many times. It is clear that the absolute values of self-reported activity vary considerably between the two surveys, being appreciably higher in most key respects in the 2008 survey. Nonetheless, what seems reasonably consistent across the two surveys are the comparisons within each dataset of the relative frequency of reported impacts-generating activities.

Figure 5.7: Knowledge transfer activities reported by a sample of UK academics in 2008 and 2009 surveys

Knowledge transfer practice% academics involved 2009% academics involved 2008type of academic activity
Attending conferences8756general
Informal advice to business5735application
External lectures6534application
Joint publication4626application
Advisory boards3822service
Student projects/placements3320renewal
External visits19application
Formed/run consultancy1418application
Contract research3718application
Undertaken consultancy4317application
Been involved in consortia3517application
Joint research4917application
Post-course placementsna14renewal
Prototyping and testing10naapplication
Licensed research510application
Standards forum3110application
Spin out companies47discovery/ application
Enterprise education64renewal/ application
External secondment103application

Sources: Abreu et al (2009) for column 2; Ulrichson, 2009, for column 3, survey of academics stratified by university departments. N = 1,175 . Key: business/economic sphere in yellow

The most widely undertaken activities likely to generate external impacts involve informal advice to businesses, along with lectures, networking, contract work, student placements, joint publications with external personnel and consultancy. These are all areas where the social sciences in Britain are represented quite comparably with science and technology disciplines. Engineering areas show the greatest involvement in the STEM disciplines and business schools and economics the highest levels of engagement in the social sciences. However, some other areas are much more confined to STEM disciplines, especially applying for patents (which occurs only rarely in the social sciences and not at all in the humanities), licensing technologies, forming spin-out companies and being involved in consortia.

In Figure 5.7 we have also sought to post-code each kind of external involvement in terms of the seven main kinds of academic activity discussed above (that is, discovery, integration, application and renewal at the single-discipline level, and bridging scholarship, university integration and academic service at the cross-disciplinary level). The available information here is very limited, confined to the detailed wording of the prompt items used, plus the overall ‘knowledge transfer’ orientation of the survey design and general wording. Thus it is not surprising that the coding that can be confidently made post-hoc focuses on applied research. In addition, there are a few teaching-related elements falling within the ‘renewal’ stream, and some isolated items where ‘discovery’ and ‘academic service’ are clearly involved.

Figure 5.8: How UK social scientists perceived the actual and potential external impacts of their discipline in areas of society, in 2008

Area of external impactsLevel of impactSocial scientists onlyAcademics spanning social sciences and humanitiesAll respondents (including academics across all social science and humanities)
Public policyActual4.63.63.4
Civil societyActual4.54.14.1
Public debates and cultureActual3.954.6
Economy and businessActual3.63.13
Science and technologyActual3.13.42.9

Source: LSE Public Policy Group (2008, p. 67). Notes: Online survey of HSS academics on the British Academy website, conducted from xxx to xx 2008. Respondents were self-selected and recruited via the Academy website and via emails from humanities and scial sciences learned societies. They were asked to give scores on a 7 point scale, where 7 = highest influence, and 1 = lowest influence. Numbers of respondents: Humanities N = 150, Social Sciences N = 124, Mixed Disciplines N = 102.

Focusing on the social sciences more specifically, Figure 5.8  shows a different kind of information provided by an e-survey that was completed by 370 social science and humanities academics in mid-2008. This was not based on a pre-set sample but on free responses to a questionnaire posted on the British Academy website and circulated to UK learned societies, with questions asking respondents to assess the actual and potential external impacts of their discipline across business and the economy, public policy, civil society, public debates and cultural areas, as well as on science and technology. Respondents were also asked to code their responses on a seven point scale and to add additional qualitative comments explaining or amplifying their answers, which were frequently completed in some detail. The pattern of responses shows clearly that social scientists believed their impact on public policy to be highest, followed by civil society, and then by contributions made to public debates and culture. However, the more that academics classified their discipline area as overlapping the social sciences and humanities, or as only in the humanities, the less confident they were of impacts on public policy and the more they located their key influence in contributions to public debates and culture. None of the groupings were confident of their impacts on business and the economy (although social scientists were more so) and all of them rated their influence with scientists and technologists inside universities as lower than those with external sectors. These evaluations are interesting in showing how far academics themselves judge the intensity of their impacts and the extent of as yet unrealised but potential impacts. In general the British Academy responses suggest that only around one in six of academics responding across these disciplines took a ‘purist’ view of opposition to their disciplines seeking to expand or maximise their impacts.

Figure 5.9: Number of UK universities reporting interactions with particular sectors

Source: HEFCE Higher Education Business Community Interaction survey 2009.

A third useful data source is a survey of universities conducted by the funding council (HEFCE) which asked them to identify the economic sectors that they most commonly worked with. Figure 5.9 shows that the highest number reported interacting with other educational institutions, but that the next highest groupings all related to public policy in one form or another – covering interactions with the NHS, local social services, international organisations and public administration (mainly local government and central government). Each of these public policy interactions were more common than links to manufacturing, which were almost overtaken by links to financial services. However, it is clear that the large bulk of linkages in Figure 5.9 are to the different parts of the private sector. The three limitations on this data are also worth bearing in mind though – the survey was a corporate one sent to university administrations, the linkages are self-reported, and they are not quantified, so that comparisons of significance are tricky.

However, the same UK survey also gathered data on a range of specifically business-facing linkages formed by universities, as shown in Figure 5.10.

Figure 5.10: Key forms of University and Business Interactions in the UK, 2007-9

 2007-082008-09Change% Change
Collaborative research (£000s)697,030731,73434,7045
Contract research
Total number of contracts27,05128,1111,0604
Total value of contracts (£000s)834,627937,373102,74611
Total number of contracts64,29264,025-2670
Total income (£000s)334,768331,541-3,227-1
of which, number with SMEs 22,80220,596-2,206-11
number with large business10,49910,360-139-1
Number of new patent applications1,8982,0971999
Number of patents granted in year5906536310
Intellectual property income
Total revenues (£000s)66,271124,36858,09747
Total costs (£000s)21,00327,7946,79124
Spin-off companies
Number created2,2232,289663
Estimated external investment received (£000s)89,497154,45164,95442

Source: HEFCE Higher Education Business Community Interaction survey 2009.

The scale of the income and activity generated by academic-business interactions is clearly impressive, and although the statistics only cover three years some areas of interaction increased considerably in this period. For instance, in areas dominated by the STEM disciplines, revenues brought in by intellectual property work grew by just under 50 per cent and income received for spin-out companies increased by just over 40 per cent in this period. By contrast, consultancy incomes (where social sciences play a larger role) were static.


  1. Generating impact within single academic disciplines is a complex process encompassing not only ‘discovery’ but also integration, application, and professional renewal; each of which impart significant demands on an academic’s time.
  2. Academic work is highly siloed into disciplines, while societal problems are multi-dimensional. Bridging scholarship across disciplines, promoting integration at the university level, and engaging in academic and professional service are some ways in which academics’ work can better reach and influence wider society.
  3. The ‘impacts interface’ describes how in advanced societies intermediaries such as consultancies, think tanks, the media, and other organisational bodies aggregate, distil and re-package trends in academic research for clients and other actors in the private sector, government, and civil society.
  4. Academics giving informal advice to businesses, along with lectures, networking, contract work, student placements, joint publications and consultancy are the most widely undertaken activities likely to generate external impacts.

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