, Volume 49, Issue 2, pp 153–174 | Cite as

Tools of the Trade: UK Research Intermediaries and the Politics of Impacts

  • Matthew Kearnes
  • Matthias Wienroth


In recent years questions concerning the impact of public research funding have become the preeminent site at which struggles over the meanings and value of science are played out. In this paper we explore the ‘politics of impact’ in contemporary UK science and research policy and, in particular, detail the ways in which UK research councils have responded to and reframed recent calls for the quantitative measurement of research impacts. Operating as ‘boundary organisations’ research councils are embroiled in what might be characterised as the ‘politics of demarcation’ in which competing understandings of the cultural values of science are traded, exchanged and contested. In this paper we focus on the way the UK’s ‘Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’ (EPSRC) has responded to contemporary policy discourses concerning the impacts of public research expenditure. We argue that, in response to the shifting terms of contemporary science policy, the EPSRC has adopted three distinct strategies. Firstly, in collaboration with other research councils the EPSRC have emphasised the intellectual and metrological challenge presented by attempts to quantify the economic impact of public research expenditure, emphasising instead the cumulative impacts of a broad portfolio of ‘basic science’. Secondly, the EPSRC has sought to widen the discursive meaning of research impacts – specifically to include societal and policy impacts in addition to economic ones. Thirdly, the EPSRC has introduced a new framing into the ‘impact agenda’, preferring to talk about ‘pathways to impact’ rather than research impacts per se. In responding to government priority setting, we argue that the EPSRC has sought to exploit both the technical fragility of auditing techniques and the discursive ambiguity of notions of impact.


Boundary work Science policy United Kingdom Impact Value 



Research for this paper was supported by the ESRC-funded project Strategic Science: Research Intermediaries and the Governance of Science (RES-061-25-0208). We would like to acknowledge the assistance provided by the EPSRC in enabling the conduct of this research. Early versions of this paper were presented at a dedicated workshop at the Royal Geographical Society (September 2009) and at the Society for Social Studies of Science conference (October 2009). We acknowledge helpful comments provided in each venue. We are also grateful for two anonymous reviews of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Hazard, Risk and ResilienceDurham UniversityDurhamUK
  2. 2.Department of GeographyDurham UniversityDurhamUK

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