Of all the topics discussed at #sciblue, 'impact' has surfaced as the most provocative post-debate. @SmallCasserole has written an excellent blog on the confusion that was evident at the debate with regard to impact analysis as part of the REF, and impact analysis as a crystal ball-gazing exercise in grant applications http://bit.ly/6wu1Ny.
Although the anti-impact (REF) movement has attracted much support, including that of 6 nobel laureates, it is not clear from the message boards whether the antipathy is directed solely towards the use of impact to gate the distribution of the HEFCE budget, or impact analysis as a tool for public engagement and accountability. I suspect the former, but either way, there are clearly some scientists who appear to be comfortable with impact being used in the context of the REF.
As for assessing the impact of research ideas expressed in new grant applications, this is plain barmy. To devise an 'impact management plan' for a blue skies project, which is what we are now required to do, is to produce a couple of pages of pure fiction. Yet there are projects for which one can assess likely impact, before the work has been done. My own research ranges from blue skies to clinically applied, and for the latter it would be possible to explain the impact the work will have - relevant text already forms part of the 'Case for Support' in such proposals and so to cut and paste into the 'impact' box would not entail much extra work.
The solution might therefore be for the RCUK to offer applicants a simple choice. Is your proposal basic/fundamental/blue skies, or applied/translational? If the former, skip the following section (impact), if the latter, fill it in. For proposals that appear to fall between these two broad categories, for example, where blue skies science might have 'impact' through the generation of new intellectual property, there are already places in the application forms where this can be addressed.
My view is that grant application forms have become cluttered with all manner of irrelevant questions, and that there is not a jot of hard evidence that any of this extra box ticking and bureaucracy has had any beneficial impact on the quality and quantity of scientific output in the UK. Science would work better without impact analysis, but if it is to be forced upon us, it should at least be in a way that makes sense.