3, 2, 1… Impact!

I remember seeing a venerable old professor being introduced to the audience by his host with the statement ‘need I say more about Professor X than he has an H-index of 85!’ (and the host didn’t say anything more, that was the entire intro). Well, Professor X didn’t look pleased at all; his worth had been compressed into a single number, his many accomplishments summarised by a solitary impact index.

Truth be said, few people ever reach the lofty heights of the 80s when it comes to H-indexes (a measure of the quantity and quality of a scientist’s publications, see page 17 for an explanation of how it works) but to use it by itself to summarise of person’s accomplishments is a bit dehumanising. For surely how we achieve something is just as important as the achievement itself? Or, maybe not. Maybe the ‘number’ generated by the achievement, and how it fits into the index that measures something’s value, is all that’s important in our digitised, count-it-or-ignore-it world?

Measuring impact can be a fraught exercise. No matter how you approach it, you’re guaranteed to to leave out something that someone else regards as important. Measuring someone’s impact is hard, measuring a network of someones is even harder. And that is the task that CEED has set itself as it enters its final year of ARC funding. Tas Thamo, Tammie Harold and Dave Pannell at UWA are leading the exercise and developing a framework to measure CEED’s impact. But it’s more than just assessing CEED. The hope is this framework will be of value to other Centres of Excellence, indeed research networks everywhere, in engaging with their impact in all its diverse forms.

Of course, you only have to look at the climate-change debate to see that the ‘impact’ of science doesn’t tightly correlate with policy change (ie, high impact science doesn’t necessarily lead to rapid shifts in policy). And now the same seems to apply to the science on orangutan conservation. Good robust (CEED) science is telling us orangutan populations are in trouble. However, for many stakeholders looking to develop the tropical forests that provide habitat to orangutans, this is an inconvenient truth (and to be denied).

So what is our ‘impact’ here. High on the science side, low on the policy side (in the short term, anyway). But our engagement with the researchers and managers with an interest in organgutan conservation is generating knowledge, skills and contacts (sometimes described as human and social capital) which will persist and hopefully strengthen into the future. Impact, if these aspects are factored in, takes on new dimensions.


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