One Last Toast… To ‘Pointless’ Research?

ToastA recent article on the Guardian’s website claims that new proposals concerning government funding for research are set to ‘weed out pointless university studies’. The new proposed Research Excellence Framework (REF) from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce – bear with me here!) is designed to reward academic research which is of ‘quantifiable value’. A key criterion in the new assessment framework is “demonstrable economic and social impacts that have been achieved through activity within the submitted unit that builds on excellent research” (paragraph 27a). From 2012 onwards, such ‘impact’ will constitute 25% of the ‘marks’ awarded to each university department in the country, on the basis of which their funding allocation will be determined.

The ‘impact’ criterion is being reported by some as designed to dissuade academics from pursuing trivial and flippant research  (for some of the most amusing examples see here!) However, if this is indeed the aim, the move will most likely prove to be fruitless. Often, such research is conducted as media-baiting publicity funded by private corporations (the infamous research, carried out in 2003 at Leeds University, seeking the formula – literally – for the perfect piece of toast was commissioned by butter manufacturer Lurpak, for instance) Industrial sponsorship no doubt gives academics at least as much material motivation to pursue such research as there would be de-motivation from the REF guidelines and the subsequent impact on public-sector funding they might receive. But perhaps the most important question is whether or not some more traditional research disciplines, such as philosophy, will become ensnared, dolphin-like, in the new REF’s trawler-net. It is difficult to demonstrate the quantifiable value of much philosophy research, and indeed pure academic work within other humanities disciplines, such as English literature and Art History. The REF expands on its definition of ‘impact’ as follows:

There should be a wide definition of impacts, including economic, social, public policy, cultural and quality of life. We include all these types of impact throughout this document, wherever we refer simply to ‘impact’ or ‘social and economic impact’. (Within the ‘impact’ element we do not intend to include impact through intellectual influence on scientific knowledge and academia – this is fully recognised within the ‘outputs’ and ‘environment’ elements of the REF. Impact on teaching within HE will be taken into account where it can be shown that high-quality research has informed practice, not just course content, well beyond the institution in which that practice was first developed.) (REF – Para 53b)

But even with a broad definition, much philosophical and broader academic research still seems to fail this criterion. The fear, then, might be that if social and economic impact is taken to define useful research, philosophy and other broad-humanities disciplines might struggle to justify their drain on the public coffers. Sally Hunt (general secretary of the University and College Union), argues that we should be concerned about market forces entering the academic domain, and the subsequent potential for this stifling creativity and preventing ‘blue-sky thinking’. Or perhaps the attitude of the new REF is correct: after all, shouldn’t public money be spent on ‘essentials’ such as schools and hospitals, particularly in these lean times? In the meantime, however, we philosophers might like to pursue a new definition of ‘impact’ which takes demonstrates the value of our discipline.

To read the new REF, go here.

Related Article:

$1.99 - small Welfarism
By Simon Keller, University of Melbourne
(December 2008)
Philosophy Compass

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