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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  1. Bee

    Of course intellectual elitism still exists. But it’s an effect of rather than the cause for some research being not immediately relevant for our societies.

    It is very annoying to hear people state repeatedly things along the lines that scientists are not interested in making valuable contributions to our societies. From my experience, exactly the opposite is the case. Especially in basic research, scientists are very painfully aware that their work is a very long-term investment of our societies, very likely to fail, and the majority of the public thinks they are just useless and wasting money that was better used otherwiese. That is not a pleasant position to be in. As a result, a substantial fraction of those scientists develops some sort of “elitism” as a forward defense for convincing themselves and others that they are somehow “special” and worthy the investment. Others engage in public outreach activities to make themselves socially useful (like: writing a blog?).

    The bottomline is, “academics” are normal people like you and me (come to think of it, that’s probably a poor definition of normal). They are not antisocial and they aren’t more or less likely to contribute to our society’s wellbeing than anybody else. There is no need to impose any requirement for “impact” on them. That’s what they aim for anyway. They just have a different, and most likely a better, perspective on how to achieve such impact.

    08 Oct 2009, 11:46

  2. Adam Corner

    Hi Steve – thanks for your response. I hoped that you would see the letter in the Times Higher.

    I’m with you all the way on the unhelpfulness of short-termism – which linking academic output to political and economic priorties clearly encourages. What I was kicking against was something different – the implication in the last issue from a variety of voices that somehow academics were beyond notions of relevance or usefulness, that we know best. I cant help but find the comment above very telling in this regard:

    (Bee): “There is no need to impose any requirement for “impact” on them. That’s what they aim for anyway. They just have a different, and most likely a better, perspective on how to achieve such impact.”

    Now I’m not advocating some cost-benefit analysis of academic output, and I find the idea of university research being tied directly into national-level plans for economic growth as repugnant as you do. But if this doesnt signify some serious elitism, what does? Surely public funding means people have a broader stake in academic research than ‘we know best so let us get on with it’...?

    08 Oct 2009, 13:37

  3. Bee

    Hi Adam,

    I have to admit I read Steve’s comment before I read what you actually wrote, which sounds more balanced and reasonable as I was afraid it would be.

    I don’t care very much how you call it – if you want to call it “elitism,” that’s just a word. The problem is that it’s being used to express the detachment of academics from what is “socially useful” and to indicate they are looking down on “normal folks,” unconcerned and uninterested in whether they waste other people’s money. This is the picture that upsets me, because it’s not remotely compatible with what I actually see among my colleagues. What the alleged “elitism” actually is is an expression of rare expertise and of working in an area that IS very different from non-academic work. You can add to this what I said above, that there are (so I believe, not being a psychologist or sociologist) psychological reasons why people want to make themselves and others believe they are “better” in some way. And what do academics have to be proud of other than their “intellectualism?”

    It is of course not generally true that academics “know best.” It depends on the question you ask. There are eg questions of general research priorities for our societies, that should be discussed in a democratic process. When it comes to the question however how the money that has been allocated in this way to a research direction (say, medicine) should be used on particular projects, then the only people who can plausibly make this judgement of what is promising and what isn’t are the researchers who have sufficient knowledge. And at this point you have to be very careful what requirements you put on them, because you can very easily distort their judgement. Science lives from objective opinions. That’s the only guide towards progress we have. Any sort of pressure, may that be public pressure or financial pressure, or the request to fulfill certain criteria, is going to skew this judgement. And with that lower the chances for success.



    08 Oct 2009, 14:05

  4. Uncle Al

    A closeted homosexual physical chemist diddled a molecular still without managerial oversight, trying to make the longest molecules he could against Official Truth. Wallace Carrothers discovered nylon. A pain in the butt physicist could not find an academic job and ended up pushing paper in a patent office. Einstein’s annus mirabilis. All discovery is insubordination, for it cannot appear in a business plan, a spreadsheet, or a PERT chart.

    Los Angeles Unified School District, $20 billion/year budget, 1177 schools, 700,000 students, evaluates output with the California Academic Performance Index (CAPI) exam. Of the 60% of entrants who graduate four year high schools within six years (!), the weighted average CAPI IQ is 84. Look what compassion bought us. Los Angeles Times “California section” page B3, 05 September 2008

    The best way to assure equality is to cut everybody down to size. Elitism insists the better is preferable to the worse. Uncle Al is an elitist.

    08 Oct 2009, 16:47

  5. Kay zum Felde


    I think the long term output of sciences is what we should look for! It is useful for everyone. How can we measure usefulness ? By some kind of logic. Okay, some kind of logic should be used, but this is what everyone expects. Wasn’t it with so many developments that were originally first rejected. Wasn’t it always a fight, where many people have been laughed at first ? Everyone knows Einstein today, at least his name and the term relativity.

    Best Kay

    08 Oct 2009, 16:49

  6. Kea

    whatever intellectual elitism may have existed when academia was essentially a self-appointed club funded by the taxpayers has long disappeared.[q]

    You gotta be f%$^& kidding me. Disappeared? Spent much time amongst theoretical physicists lately?

    09 Oct 2009, 23:45

  7. Steve Fuller

    The negative spin given to ‘intellectual elitism’ and corresponding calls for ‘social relevance’ have to be seen against several developments that point to science’s own failure to manage its internal and external affairs adequately. Here are three:

    (1) There are more people in science than ever before, and that alone creates opportunities for hierarchies that allow merit and power to be combined in contestable ways. Peer review may always have been an ‘old boys club’ but now there are many more people trying to join the club, and that itself creates problems, especially once science’s resource base gets subject to tighter accounting regimes.

    (2) Science is simply much more expensive to do, partly because of equipment costs but of couse also because of labour costs—more people being paid more, and on a regular basis, to do science. It’s easy to take this point for granted but when people talk about the halcyon days of the early 20th century and still earlier, when science could be pursued without thinking about the bottom line, it was also much cheaper to do.

    (3) There are greater social and economic expectations placed on science than ever before – on grounds that are not entirely justified by the history of science alone. Moreover, many scientific leaders have promoted these expectations themselves for a variety of reasons, all of which sets up the public to suffer a bipolar disorder with respect to science – too high hopes followed by too great disappointments.

    12 Oct 2009, 10:59

  8. CfCS

    Intellectual elitism is clearly exhibited by those elites that control the funding, peer-reviewed publication, and the spread in news of ideas and theories contraries to their own.

    There is many well-documented cases of abuse by those elites. “Science in the 21st century: social, political, and economic issues” reports the funding of research, and the replacement of impartial reviewing by anonymous censorship among other problems:


    The scope includes a list of thirty four Nobel Laureates whose awarded work was initially rejected by elites.

    Several suggestions from Harry Morrow Brown, Lee Smolin, and Linda Cooper for solving the problems are included in the report.

    The work finishes with a brief section on the reasons to be optimists about the future of science.

    15 Oct 2009, 10:43

  9. John Socism

    There’s no such thing as intellectual elitism, but all all undergraduates and post graduates should consider attending an Apres Grad course. Check out www.apresgrad.co.uk. It therefore to help post graduates and undergraduates ensure they are among the elite when it comes to job interviews.

    04 Nov 2009, 20:26

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