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October 08, 2009

The debate over the desirability of ‘pointless’ research continues to rage.

Follow-up to Draft David Mitchell for Board Membership in a UK Research Council from Making the university safe for intellectual life in the 21st century -- by Steve Fuller

The context, you may recall, is that the UK’s new ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF) aims to measure research ‘impact’ in ways that appears to favour economic relevance. The Times Higher last week covered my campaign to draft the comedian David Mitchell into membership of a research council because of his wise objections to this proposal. In fact, that issue of the Higher was full of like-minded sentiments.

In this week's Times Higher, Adam Corner, a psychologist at Cardiff, has written in defense of relevance measures, employing two arguments. First:

Their [i.e. mine and others’] arguments are couched in anti-establishment language and position academics as the guardians of truth-seeking. But the golden age of academia they long for was far from a meritocracy where independent inquiry ruled. Their desire to see research prised away from pragmatic objectives risks a return to intellectual elitism.

In response, first it’s worth pointing out that ‘impact’ is being proposed as a replacement of ‘esteem’ in previous research assessment exercises. No more coasting on reputations made twenty years ago! For younger researchers like Corner, this is potentially good news, at least in terms of levelling the playing field of merit. In this context, measurement of ‘impact’ might appear to be a step in the right direction.

But, speaking for myself, whatever intellctual elitism may have existed when academia was essentially a self-appointed club funded by the taxpayers has long disappeared. Certainly ideals of ‘social relevance’ (which Corner himself prefers to ‘economic relevance’) are strongly embedded in today’s academia, which is larger and more diverse than ever in its history – even without explicit steering in specific ‘policy relevant’ directions. The only question is whether academia should be somehow brought more into line with state policy concerns. My answer is no.

Corner then concludes:

we must not forget that the purpose of our research should be the advancement of socially useful knowledge - not simply the satisfaction of our own curiosity.

A false dichotomy often made in this debate. (Actually I hate the word ‘curiosity’: It makes intellectual work sound like a species of attention deficit disorder!) Luckily comedian Mitchell got the right end of the stick, when he observed various research endeavours that appeared pointless in the short term but turned out to be quite relevant and useful in the long term. In other words, the real enemy here is not the fixation on ‘impact’ per se but short-termist thinking about research impact. We need a smarter economics of research that thinks in terms of capital investments, product life cycles and multiplier effects, within which the return on ‘pointless’ research would be obvious and manageable.


September 28, 2009

Draft David Mitchell for Board Membership in a UK Research Council

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/27/david-mitchell-pointless-studies-survey

Yes, that David Mitchell – the one from the ‘Peep Show’, ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’ and numerous comedy quiz shows on British radio and television. He’s also a Cambridge history grad and one of the most articulate and insightful commentators on the state of higher education today – professional academics and certainly government officials included.

Beneath the title of this blogpost, I have provided a link to an article that appeared in the Observer this past Sunday (where he has a regular column), which takes comic aim at the proposed standard of ‘practical relevance’ put forward by the Research Excellence Framework, which is the successor to the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise.

What’s most interesting about this piece is that Mitchell only has to tweak the straight version of the story a little to produce massive comic effect. Yes, it is pretty st-o-o-o-pid for the public sector to fund mainly research that demonstrates short-term economic and social utility when that would be precisely the sort of research that would most naturally attract private funding. State funding is supposed to make up for – not contribute to – market failure.

Of course, Mitchell overlooks the possibility that, as in the case of the banks, the state is trying to bail out the charities and other private funders, whose coffers have been depleted by the global credit crunch. It’s a stretch, I know. But given the absurdity of the official policy, why shouldn’t its justification be at least as absurd, if not more so?

Mitchell is also spot-on in associating so-called pointless research with a society that thinks beyond sheer animal survival. Indeed, if we can think only in terms of research for the sake of survival, then we should cut out the research middleman altogether and simply focus state funds on implementing solutions that facilitate survival. Surely, if our straits are so dire, we don’t have time for any research whatsoever!

To end on a constructive note, I would like to invite David Mitchell to put himself forward for membership in one of the UK’s publicly funded research councils, probably Arts and Humanities (AHRC) or Economic and Social (ESRC). These are administered by the ominously named Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (of which Higher Education is a subdivision). Here is the website: http://www.dius.gov.uk/science/research_councils/public_appointments/council_members

You will see that openings for these councils will be advertised later in the Autumn. Council members are typically people who do not work in academia but are seen as ‘stakeholders’ in the future of academia. Comedians certainly fit that bill, given their large student market – not to mention the source of much of their funniest material!

Pass the suggestion along: Draft David Mitchell!


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