At the heart of the buzz-word that is 'impact' is the sense that it is important to be of use in the wider world. Seven years ago, when I was deciding which A Level subjects to take, I definitely thought about impact, even if I didn't express it to myself in those terms. At the risk of sounding boastful, I had done very well in a very broad range of subjects at GCSE. All signs pointed to me having the capacity to undertake, for example, all three sciences and maths, with the consideration of becoming a doctor at the end of it. As a teenager I was not filled with self-esteem, and going on to save lives seemed a good way to justify my existence in the world, and 'giving back' for the sheer good fortune of genetics and chance which gave me both a certain quantity of native intelligence and the privilege of living in a country in which higher-level education was socially and economically open to me.
However, I also knew that science and maths, though I enjoyed understanding them, did not fill me with the same excitement as arts and humanities subjects, and I had a vague sense that loving a subject was, in some indefinable way, more important than simply being good at it. Ability could produce good benefits, for myself, for the people around me, but I wondered if 'passion' might enable me to produce excellent work. So I started down the path that has led to my seeking, now, to become a very much unmedical doctor.
But, the question of impact, or of benefiting the lives of others, is still there, which is partially why I attended the CAPOD course about Impact and Enterprise the day before yesterday. But I encountered a problem whilst listening to the discussions, which is namely that my personal definition of the 'impact' that a historian can have is rather different from that which official bodies such as the REF want to see us producing.
Let us face facts - at the end of the day, the actual, practical 'impact' that historical research can have is quite limited. I don't think history is suited to shaping policy, or changing the way people act in the present day: the idea that the past is a huge piece of rock from which we can mine golden nuggets of 'lessons' for present-day application doesn't, to me, relate to what I am doing. I don't think it would be controversial to say that for most academic historians, gaining a better understanding of the past is an end in itself. I'm not saying that the past is irrelevant to understanding the present - after all, in many real ways history is the story of how we have got to where we now are - but using it for instrumental purposes, such as trying to persuade people of how they should think about a particular present-day issue, risks taking us away from actually understanding the past on its own terms.
But, for all that, I do think that history can have an 'impact' in the sense of enriching the lives of others, and not just other academics. I am the kind of person who loves to have a guidebook to a place I am going, so that when I am there I can be aware of the texture of the history of that place. The reason I am a historian is because I find people absolutely fascinating, and I love reading about how people living in different historic cultures and contexts navigated the world in which they lived. I don't think this is a unique or even unusual feeling to have. For myself, I will feel as if my work has had 'impact' if it reaches, in some form or other, the maximum number of people both inside and outside the academy. Historical research is never going to cure anyone or save any lives - but it has the potential to, in some intangible (and probably not huge) way, improve lives. In other words, public engagement (which is one part of impact for many disciplines), is really the best impact in and of itself that history can hope - and should aim - to have.
And this is where I had problems with the concept of the 'Impact Journey' and the way in which the REF expect academics to justify and explain their impact. The last step on the impact journey described in the Brunel Impact Toolkit stated that a researcher must be able to identify a specific impact, in which 'specific parties must benefit specifically'. An example was given of a project digitising working class literature, with the specific impact being that 'socially disadvantaged or excluded groups will develop an improved sense of identity and connect with their local history in a way not possible before'. But, just because the subject of the history is working class literature, doesn't mean that the 'impacted group' has to necessarily be working class - and, ideally, the impact of such research would be aimed, and spread to, a much wider cross-section of society.
Early in the day, it was acknowledged that the official definition of 'impact' was really designed with the sciences in mind, but this was expressed more as a hurdle for the arts and humanities to overcome, rather than a reason for changing the policies, or variegating them for different disciplines. But to me, assuming that the disciplines are all analogous, and can work in exactly the same way, seems to be highly problematic. When I expressed these concerns, the general response seemed to be that we should just get on with it, and that complaining about the policies was irrelevant and unproductive. Whilst I agree that to some extent it is necessary to just knuckle down and produce what the REF and other organisations want in the short-term, I also feel that in the long-term it is important for academics to speak out and explain the ways in which policies do not work for them or their discipline.
Finally, whilst personally I very much want to have an immediate impact - for example, I would very much like to publish in both academic and popular contexts - I do not think it is always appropriate. The sciences have this excellent concept of 'blue sky research', in which the real-world application of a piece of research isn't immediately apparent. I love the phrase - it has such a positive ring to it. And, of course, blue-sky research is vital, because pragmatic science relies on an underpinning (and continual improvement) of theory that doesn't relate straightforwardly to wider impact. What I'd love is to see a similar positivity about apparently 'purpose-less' research in the humanities. Not all historical research is even appropriate for engaging with a wider public; some of it is obscure, potentially boring to anybody but its few acolytes, and some of it involves grappling with questions of theory and historiography that require a level of historical training and knowledge that cannot be expected of a layperson. But without these sorts of projects - which challenge academic historians in how they think about history, which produce editions of obscure texts, which put together databases of bibliographical information, ready for people to then use and analyse - 'impactful' history that is of interest to the wider public either wouldn't be produced, or would be of a less high quality.
I want to end with a quote from George Mallory, which has always resounded with me. When asked what the use of climbing Mount Everest was, he responded:
"It is of no use. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron... What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for."