Ignorant university leadership?

There is a report in the Times Higher Education that a group of 25 senior university sector figures met to discuss the objection by many in the academic sector to economic and social impact being included in research assessments. They claim to have completely “bought into the impact agenda”, but that there is a group of middle ranking academics/researchers who have “rather lost the plot”.

What these senior figures seem to think is that academics don’t want their research to have impact. This was illustrated by one speaker who was quoted as saying “take a large number of academics into a room and ask them to put their hand up if they wish their work to have no impact whatsoever … I have yet to see a hand”. This statement either illustrates that the speaker is completely ignorant of what drives academics, or it is a completely disingenious comment that intentionally misrepresents the debate in an attempt to make it appear that academics are selfish prats who believe that because they’re so clever they deserve to have taxpayers’ money spent on them without giving anything in return. Of course academics want their work to have impact. They debate is about the optimum way in which to achieve and measure impact.

There is ample evidence to suggest that in many cases impact from fundamental research, be it in the sciences or social sciences, occurs many years after the research is done and in many cases is totally unpredictable. Not only this, but this unpredictable impact can have immense value, much more than would generally be true of predictable research. This is the fundamental point. The argument being made by academics is that you generally cannot predict the economic and social impact of a particular research project in advance. Additionally, if you try to do so and make this an important factor in determining whether to fund research or not, you will drive research to become more predictable and significantly reduce the potential impact.

The only positive spin I can put on the view of these senior university figures is that they believe that including economic and social impact in the assessment of research activities is going to happen whether we like it or not. We may as well, therefore, just get on with it and make the best of it. If this is the case
then I think it is incredibly cowardly and simplistic. It may well happen, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing our best to illustrate that it may do immense damage and that if too much pressure is put on academics to illustrate the potential impact of their research, it will encourage predictable research that will have minimal impact. This will ultimately be a waste of taxpayers’s money and if anything we have an obligation to spend this money as wisely as possible. Accepting the impact agenda may well violate this principle.

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