Don and dusted: The "Institute of Ideas" meets HEFCE
A few months ago I agreed to be part of a debate at the British Library organised by the estimable Institute of Ideas (a great and brave name which somehow manages to stay this side of over-confident). The theme was to be "was the age of the 'old-fashioned scholar' over"? ... what with new HEFCE models, a pressure for research "outcomes", "impact" and "evidenced based research" (what other sort is there, I wonder?). The title (another great one) was to be "Don and dusted?".
No great surprise then that, as the day approached, the Today programme got interested (for their nice post-8.30 slot when nutty academics get wheeled out to discourse on their new theories and have a donnish argument for three minutes or so).
Yesterday, as a prequel to the debate, I was to go head to head with David Sweeney, Head of "Research, Innovation and Skills" at HEFCE. Now I am not a knee-jerk HEFCE hater, though like many academics I have a visceral distrust (or at least wariness) of the men and women from HEFCE. So I had rather expected that Sweeney would be a bit of a "now look here, how on earth can you expect the taxpayer to support thirty-year research projects on ancient Athenian dice" sort of man. ("Athenian dice" is one of my friends definition of a "useless research subject".) So I did my passionate opening about how no subject was "useless" (only a subject for which we had not yet found a use) -- and so on, throwing in a bit of stuff about humanities research contributing to human happiness etc.
Far from being the academic equivalent of a hanger and flogger, Sweeney came back with the wonderful line that people like me and my research was precisely what HEFCE was trying to support and protect. You can listen here.
But do we believe him?
At the debate itself (chaired by Claire Fox), the other participants were by and large singing from the same hymn sheet: me, Colin Blakemore, Colin Lawson and Gloria Laycock and Sweeney did find himself under attack from other panellists and the audience. The most important thing I came away with was that he was a man who was prepared to engage -- with whom you could do business. (He'd agreed to be part of the debate, after all -- when he must have known what was coming.)
All the same, I still have a terrible sinking feeling about the new Research Excellence Framework, and its stress on the 'impact' of research. I took a good hard look at the recent consultation document produced by HEFCE (and, as Sweeney stressed, it is only a consultation document) and at the "indicators" which might demonstrate "impact". There are almost forty indicators, of which only four or five could possible ever apply to an arts and humanities subject. Most refer to income from industry, increased turnover for particular businesses, improved health outcome, better drugs (medicinal rather than recreational I imagine) and changes in public opinion (eg reductions in smoking). One of my colleagues ruefully observed that humanities research probably had a track record of encouraging smoking, at least among researchers... all that angst in the library.
Even the indicators which looked as if they might apply to us. Try "enriched appreciation of heritage or culture, for example as measured through surveys." How on earth would a survey show the impact of, lets say, Wittgenstein? Even HEFCE seems to have given up at the end. Under the category "Other quality of life benefits" there were no indicators. Someone had just written "Please suggest what might be included". A generous appeal to the academic community, or desperation?
I wont summarise the whole thing, as it will soon be on the THE website (they were sponsors and providers of the post debate drinks). I will put a link here when it is. (If you want some good and pointed bons mots that raised applause from the audience, go to Colin Lawson's opening contribution -- the Director of the Royal College of Music, I was dead pleased to discover that he had done Latin, Greek and Ancient Hstory A levels, without regrets).
I will just say that Gloria and I had fallen on the same comparison. British research punches far above its weight -- unlike British sport (which is no more "useful"). If our middle distance runners did half as well as our universities (four out of the top six in the recent world ranking are British), there would be a national celebration and a triumphal procession in an open topped bus.
And look at the money the government is pouring into sport, on the correct principle (as Gloria observed) that you have to support generously a wide range of activities and people, in order to produce a very few medallists. Why dont they use that argument for academic research too?
(For other event in the Institute of Ideas, Battle of Ideas festival, click here.)