The higher education impact agenda, scientific realism and policy change: the case of electoral integrity in Britain


Pressures have increasingly been put upon social scientists to prove their economic, cultural and social value through ‘impact agendas’ in higher education. There has been little conceptual and empirical discussion of the challenges involved in achieving impact and the dangers of evaluating it, however. This article argues that a realist approach to social science can help to identify some of these key challenges and the institutional incompatibilities between impact regimes and university research in free societies. These incompatibilities are brought out through an autobiographical ‘insider account’ of trying to achieve impact in the field of electoral integrity in Britain. The article argues that there is a more complex relationship between research and the real world which means that the nature of knowledge might change as it becomes known by reflexive agents. Secondly, the researchers are joined into social relations with a variety of actors, including those who might be the object of study in their research. Researchers are often weakly positioned in these relations. Some forms of impact, such as achieving policy change, are therefore exceptionally difficult as they are dependent on other actors. Strategies for trying to achieve impact are drawn out such as collaborating with civil society groups and parliamentarians to lobby for policy change.

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  1. 1.

    The terms political science, political scientist and social scientist are used in this article for the sake of simplicity, with apologies to those who prefer the terms political studies, political theorists and social studies.

  2. 2.

    James (Forthcoming).

  3. 3.

    Within the broad camp of ‘scientific realism’ there remains debate and diversity. Pawson (2006, pp. 18–19) argues that ‘critical realism’, associated with the work of Margaret Archer and Roy Bhaskar, stressed that in an open system there are near limitless explanatory possibilities. It followed that social scientists can simply provide a highly normative and critical narrative to mistaken and popularly held accounts of the world. By contrast, ‘scientific’ realism (also using the label ‘empirical realism’, ‘emergent realism’, ‘analytical realism’) are more optimistic about the ability of the researcher to judge between different causal explanations in open systems. The term scientific realism is used throughout this paper.

  4. 4.

    Also see: Collier (1994) and Putnam and Conant (1990).

  5. 5.

    There are other post positivist alternatives to behaviouralism such as interpretivism. See for example, (Kirkland and Wood 2017).

  6. 6.

    This example was taken from my own University: University of East Anglia (2017) ‘Our research impacts business, policy and the public’, url:, date accessed, 25th May 2017.

  7. 7.

    Co-chairs in the first year were Lord Blunkett (Labour), Owen Thompson (SNP), Lord Rennard (Lib Dem), Gavin Robinson (DUP), Liz Saville-Roberts (Plaid Cymru), Mark Durkan (SDLP), Danny Kinahan (UUP) Caroline Lucas, (Green) Baroness Grey-Thompson (Crossbench).

  8. 8.

    The Times, 8th February 2016, reprinted on the Political Studies Association Blog:

  9. 9.

    The Telegraph, 9th June 2016

  10. 10.

    Correspondence with BBC journalist.

  11. 11.

    Financial Times (2014) ‘Reform sees 1.4 m people leave electoral register’

  12. 12.

    The Metro (2016) ‘Millions could miss out on EU referendum vote – don’t be one of them, register by this deadline’

  13. 13.

    BBC (2016) ‘EU referendum: Millions 'could miss out on vote', 25th May 2016

  14. 14.

    James et al. (2016) ‘Let’s stop the last minute rush: it’s time for a complete and inclusive electoral register for Britain’ Democratic Audit

  15. 15.

    Radio 4 Today, 14th October 2015.

  16. 16.

    Toby S. James and Oliver Sidorczuk (2016) ‘Getting It Right: Voter Registration Lessons For The UK’, Huffington Post, 26th February 2016,

  17. 17.

    Caroline Lucas and Toby S. James (2017) Why isn't the full electoral registration process online?, Open Democracy, March 2017,

  18. 18.

  19. 19.

    Personal correspondence.


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James, T.S. The higher education impact agenda, scientific realism and policy change: the case of electoral integrity in Britain. Br Polit 13, 312–331 (2018).

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  • Scientific realism
  • Policy change
  • Electoral integrity
  • Electoral registration
  • Electoral studies
  • Impact
  • Higher education