All entries for Thursday 08 October 2009

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.

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