White Rose Planning Pathway conference, ‘Planning for Impact’, 19th May 2015, University of Sheffield

by Gareth Young (Planning Pathway, University of Sheffield)

The WRDTC Planning Pathway (Department of Town and Regional Planning, University of Sheffield and Institute of Transport Studies, University of Leeds) hosted their first postgraduate conference, Planning for Impact, on 19 May 2015.

p1The purpose of this one-day event was to bring together researchers from the broad range of disciplines across the Planning Pathway to showcase their research and begin to consider the envisaged impact that postgraduate researchers can have can have in a wider cultural, social and economic context. Given the diversity of research being undertaken across the various departments within the WRDTC institutions and the increased focus and importance on impact, is felt timely to hold such an event. Throughout the day participants were encouraged to keep in mind three key questions: What do we mean by impact? Who is being impacted by research? and What impact might we have?

The conference was opened by keynote speaker Julian Dobson, director of Urban Pollinators Ltd, who offered an overview of what academic departments can do in terms of influencing policy. For Julian, he suggested that this needs to be an ongoing and dialectical process and as academics, having an impact on policy can sometimes mean challenging policies. As PhD researchers though, we have to be realistic about the impact that we can have with our research given the enormity of other pressures we face and the relative infancy of our ideas. However there are a number of things we can do and think about as we go through the PhD process. We must remember that the PhD is a creative process and that we do not know where we will end up. Through this process it is important that we challenge and investigate not only our own thinking, but the thinking of other academics whose work we often build our ideas upon. We also need to think about how we ensure that the voices in the research – whether that be from communities, policy-makers or whoever is involved in the study – are not negated by our own desire to ‘look good’ and not to create impact for our own reputation’s sake. For Julian, one way we can begin to have impact as academic researchers is to amplify the voices of those who would p2not otherwise be heard in a political policy-making context, or, if our work is not at a community level, thinking about how we can bring in these voices and include them in the work we do. As researchers we must remember it is important to be challenging and we should not be afraid of doing this.

The event was closed by Professor Martin Jones (Director, WRDTC) who offered an excellent overview of what impact means for PhD researchers. As PhD researchers we are, it was suggested, in a strong position to think about impact, as we are working on active projects. In the context of REF within academia, along with increasing government focus on the impact of research it is clear that impact is not going away. This provides us, both academics and PhD researchers with new challenges. We need to start thinking of developing innovative ways of recording the impact that our research has, and this is something that, we as “academics in the making”, can start doing now. Impact also comes with a number of ‘health warnings’, however. Not everything that we do will be impactful in both an academic sense on the one hand and economic and societal sense on the other.  We therefore need to be very clear of what it is we are doing, how this research can have impact and who this research will impact upon. It is also important to remember that impact is not simplp3y dissemination, but it is about building purposeful, beneficial outcomes at the different stages of our research. The impact agenda is a relatively new one, one that is gaining importance within academia and therefore the ways of recording impact and dealing with the timeframe of impact during the life course of a research project are still being defined. It is this which is the present challenge for academics.

As PhD researchers though, a number of key pieces of advice were provided from the event:

  • There is a need to devise innovative ways of recording impact and developing impact methodologies. We, as PhD researchers, can start to think about this. It is also important to start thinking about the impact that we are having. By simply carrying a diary and recording when we do something where our research is having impact is a good way to start thinking about our own impact methodologies and to begin considering innovative ways to capture impact.
  • When we consider our research methodologies we should consider how we can build in impact at the various stages, as impact is not just about dissemination.
  • Even as PhD researchers were should still be paying attention to the rising impact agenda and becoming familiar with documents such as the Pathways to Impact template document, as this will become increasingly important in our future HE careers.

If you want to know more about this event, presentations, notes and some recordings will soon be available on the conference webpage. The Twitter hashtag for the event was #WRDTCPlanning, where there are comments and pictures from the day.