The day started with a series of 'Impact and Enterprise case studies', which I found fascinating. An 'external' view was provided by Bruce Newlands, from an 'SME' (meaning, I learnt, small-to-medium-enterprise) called Kraft Architecture. His company has been working on developing a new, affordable type of housing insulation made from recycled textile, namely the materials wasted in the Scottish wool industry when reams of fabric get cut down a standard size of 4m. He talked about how he had benefited from contacts within academia and from being able to take advantage of equipment based within universities. Then we heard from David Townsend, of Town Rock Energy, who started out as a geologist and has since founded a company aimed at potentially harnessing the benefits of geothermal energy in Scotland. Finally, as I sat there feeling increasingly gloomy about the relative potential impact of historical research compared to such projects, the floor was given to Dr Chris Jones, a lecturer in English at St Andrews, who spoke about his involvement in putting together an app based upon Seamus Heaney's translations of a fifteenth-century Scots poet's Five Fables.
After some discussion and a question and answer panel (during which we also heard from Dr Blesson Varghese, a computer scientist, and Ben Fletcher-Watson, a dramatist also working on an app, in this case a theatre-based app for small children), much of the rest of the day was dedicated to the question of 'working out our impact'. Dr Averile Horton introduced the 'Brunel Impact Toolkit', which broke the idea of impact down into a 7-step 'impact journey', starting with inputs (what the problem was that a piece of research set out to solve), activities and outputs (i.e. research and academic publication), through 'translation' and 'usage', in which another party must translate the knowledge produced into a different (non-academic) context, all the way to 'general impact' and 'specific impact'.
After lunch participants were asked to try to write out an exemplar 'impact journey', for example for the purposes of putting on one's CV or presenting to the REF (which now includes impact as one of its criteria). Then we heard from the University Provost about the support in place within St Andrews for producing impact, and finally enjoyed two very interesting talks on 'The Impact of Delivering a REF Impact Case Study', one from a chemist who was working on using a specific type of material to heal wounds in a new way, and one from an academic in film studies who told us about his project on the History of Cinema in St Andrews, which was pushed out to the public through a variety of open screenings and exhibitions.
The day was extremely thought-provoking, and I'm very glad I attended. I found the idea of apps as a way to communicate the products of arts or humanities research really intriguing, and was glad to hear about the ways in which fairly 'niche' projects (for example on the history of cinema in a small seaside Scottish town!) could be communicated to the public and have an impact on their understanding and appreciation of the past. During the course of the presentations I had a few ideas about how even the concept of 'enterprise' could be applicable to historians, though I struggled a little with the disparity between my personal idea of what 'good impact' is, and the official definitions put out by, for example, the Research Excellent Framework. More on these thoughts in my next blog post....
*A geothermal field in Iceland. Sadly, my research will never solve problems of energy supply.