What is the impact of doctoral research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences?

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On December 6th 2023, we held an online discussion about impact in the arts, humanities and social sciences with a presentation from The British Academy’s Dr Joanna Thornborough.

The event opened with an icebreaker, with attendees going into breakout rooms to discuss what impact meant to them and how it could be measured. Dr Thornborough (Senior Policy Adviser in Higher Education and Skills at the British Academy) then presented her thoughts on what she called the SHAPE disciplines (i.e., Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy).

There is nothing more important to the survival of society as social sciences, humanities and the arts,” she began, quoting a REF 2021 STEM panel member. She then acknowledged that there are different ways of interpreting impact, the dominant one being the Research Excellence Framework’s definition. In REF 2021, impact was defined as: an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. However, she said she wanted to think more broadly about the impact of doctoral research, especially in terms of the individuals carrying out the work. 

Dr Thornborough referenced the 2023 Bob Burgess Memorial Lecture, held at The British Academy, in which Professor Barbara Dooley spoke about the postgraduate research landscape in Europe. Professor Dooley’s talk has given me food for thought, especially in terms of training,” said Dr Thornborough. We refer to this group as postgraduate researchers or PGRs for short, but I like the idea of calling them doctoral researchers. The latter better represents the value and impact of their research.” She then went on to outline ways in which doctoral researchers had used their expertise to help sustain institutions such as museums and galleries, as well as the creative economy more generally. 

Doctoral researchers bridge the gap between academia and other organisations and sectors, with the researchers benefiting from new knowledge and continuing professional development,” she observed. But there are challenges when we think of impacts. Do we always have to focus on the macro (such as international impact) when there can be impacts on local communities and groups? 

Looking at impact from the point of view of the individual, Dr Thornborough elaborated on a series of case-studies published on The British Academy’s website, giving specific examples of students who had gone into business settings. One opportunity she emphasised was AI (“What is a challenge for society presents an opportunity for doctoral research”). She talked about a researcher who has contributed to the regulation of AI by drawing on legislation from the past.

Dr Joanna Thornborough concluded her talk by saying: doctoral researchers and their work represent a still-largely-untapped supply of highly skilled and capable individuals”. 

Questions and a lively discussion followed.

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