Academic impact: last days to comment
This post is a manifesto. I don't usually (?haven't ever) used this blog to urge any specific protest. But there is less than two weeks left to register your comments -- pro or con -- on the HEFCE consultation exercise over the new "Research Excellence Framework", which threatens to distribute a significant proportion of government funding to universities on the basis of the social and economic "impact" of their research.
Don't misunderstand me. I am all in favour of research making an impact outside the academy. But that is quite different from funding (and so, implicitly, directing) research on that basis. In fact, it is probably the case that the reason that UK research has had such a significant impact is simply because it didn't set out with an "impact aim" in mind.
It has been "curiosity driven" research of the highest quality -- and for that reason, for causes and effect that could not be predicted, precisely calibrated or explained, it has made its impact, five, ten, twenty, maybe fifty or a hundred years later. (Stefan Collini in the TLS is good on this; and me and others have a go here).
One of the classic examples of this would be Greek tragedy. Over the last few decades, productions of Greek drama have been a jewel in the crown of London theatre -- a big earner and a big cultural export to Broadway and elsewhere. There can be no doubt that these productions have been dependant on a flourishing research culture in the subject. That is not just a question of the hiring of a tame academic to act as advisor (though that has itself been important). It is more the fact that Greek drama is the focus of cutting edge research -- and that, by processes it is hard to unravel, that research plays into the culture of the professional stage.
To put it another way, if research on Greek drama had stopped with Gilbert Murray, then it is a fair bet that we would have had none of the Tony Harrison's Oresteia (picture at the top), or Diana Rigg in Jonathan Kent's Medea...or any of the other notable productions.
This is just one example. The point is that we do not understand how and why pure research makes its impact on society, culture and the economy more widely. Some of it certainly does -- but how we would predict exactly which bits is a mystery. It is almost certain that skewing research culture by backing those projects which looked in advance full of "impact" would diminish the quality of UK research, and probably diminish its impact too.
There is a petition you can sign to object to this. But better, wrote to comment in the consultation exercise. Despite the tendency to demonise HEFCE, the signs are that they are prepared to listen, But they cant listen if they have no comments to listen to.