Celebrating the Impact Prize

All of us want to make some impact. All
of us want to make some difference to change something, otherwise why would you be
an academic? And so, the question is: Do you want to make a difference, and how are
you going to make a difference? And one of the ways is to go out and talk to
people and say, “Look, this is what I’ve done, this is why it’s interesting, and this
is why it should change things.” The work that I do began with an ESRC-funded
studentship back in 1989, and through that work we began to understand that
much of the conflict that we were witnessing in our research during crowd
events was brought about by particularly aggressive forms of policing. So our
interest then became about impacting our research, to help the police to understand
that in order to prevent disorder they actually needed to act in a different
way, in a less confrontational fashion. Through the work that we were doing we
were producing results that then enabled us to affect the security planning
for the European Championship in Portugal in 2004. And once we’d achieved
that impact on policy, we were in a position to apply to the
ESRC to generate funds to conduct a major study of the policing of that
tournament, and the implications of that policing on crowd psychology and
behaviour. We put an e-book together which was
about some of the key issues at stake in the referendum, and in each of the
little chapters we said, “Well, that’s what the ‘yes’ side says on this issue, that’s
what the ‘no’ side says on this issue, and here’s what you need to know in order
to evaluate the claims each side makes.” We didn’t say ‘yes’ is right and ‘no’ is wrong,
or ‘no’ is right and ‘yes’ is wrong. We try to empower people to make
their own judgments better and effectively to inform their voting choice better,
and I think a mark of the success of that is that we got over 100,000
downloads of that ebook – a level of readership I would never ever have
achieved with a physical publication. When you finish your research it’s all
too easy to submit the article, get the acceptance letter from the
journal, hopefully, and then move on to the next thing. But actually, at that point
or even before that point, write the press release, send it around to some people,
talk to your university’s press office and say: “These are the things that are interesting from this.
Do you reckon we can get some traction?” Our team work on trying to look into
poverty in a different way. From the very beginning our goal
was to do research that would move policy – talking with people who
might use the research, trying to understand what were the problems, what
were the timings, what would be the low-hanging fruit where we could really
get a methodology. We also developed a measure that was easy to understand, to
communicate, so that policymakers could get the intuition and really feel that they
could use the measure with some confidence, and so, that has been from the beginning
one of our goals towards impact. Mexico became the first country
to formally adopt an official multi-dimensional poverty measure as their
national statistic, and from that point we recognized that this could be useful
in other countries, and so began consciously to try to support that demand. At 3% unemployment rather than 6%
unemployment you’re talking about millions of people’s lives being better
through that, and if our better models help policymakers get better policy, then
I think that’s what we’d like to achieve. And the idea that we had in developing these
very complex methods for handling extremely large complicated evolving reality is we can build empirical models that are
reliable, that tell you genuine understanding of the causal
relationships in the economy. There is no point in publishing journal article
after journal article and think “this is a great idea” unless people can
actually use it. So the aim was always to produce very powerful
up-to-date but easy to use software and we have about 2,500 non-academic
users around the world now. You’ve got to willing to be flexible. You’ve
got to be slightly shameless about it. I like to think of myself as being
profoundly shameless in the sense that you’ve got to like doing it. You’ve got
to like being on the telly, on the radio, writing in the newspapers. I mean, I find it
very, very satisfying when if you write something in the newspaper,
within a couple of days you’ll have 10 times more comments
underneath your article than you would get readers for an academic journal
piece. I really enjoy that. If you can explain it to your mum in a way that
engages her attention and makes it clear what you’re doing, and so she goes away
thinking, “Gosh, my child is doing something really worthwhile” – that’s the
trick, and that’s what you do. Our research is designed for the primary goal
of having an impact and improving the lives of AIDS-affected teenagers in Africa.
So that’s what drives us. Take initiative, be inventive and be committed
to helping policymakers do the right thing. So ring them up, be there to help them. And once they learn to trust you, they’ll realize that you can be an
enormously helpful source for them.

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