Anthony T Grafton writing in the New York Review of Books reckons British universities are a disgrace. Whether you’d use that word or not, his thoughts make salutary reading.
Here’s one answer. According to the authors, Geoffrey Boulton and Colin Lucas, ‘It is wrong, in our view, to expect (to use language from the beginning of this paper) that universities will be dynamos of growth and huge generators of wealth, leading to economic prosperity and enhanced quality of life on anything like the scale that is implicit in such language. In a European context, where governments are principal funders of universities, the assumption is that they are a lever which, when pulled, will gush forth the tangible effects of economic prosperity into which public money has been transformed. In reality, universities can only be one part of the process of producing a successful knowledge economy.’
Stefan Collini (Professor of English at the University of Cambridge) writes convincingly about the potentially adverse effects of attempts to assess the ‘impact’ of academic research in the humanities. In my view his comments also apply to much work in the social sciences and in those disciplines (such as geography, archaeology and anthropology) that straddle the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. His article for the Times Literary Supplement can be read here.
PM Programme (BBC Radio 4) Tuesday 15th December 2009
Eddie Mair interviews David Sweeney, Director of Research, HEFCE
The Sweeney interview follows interview with Sir Alec Jeffreys (discoverer of DNA fingerprinting) in which AJ criticised HEFCE proposals to assess the impact of academic research and suggested that neither his own work on DNA, nor Charles Darwin’s voyage in the Beagle, which led to the discovery of evolution through natural selection, would have been funded if it had had to demonstrate ‘impact’.
EM: How do you respond to those criticisms [from Alec Jeffreys]?
DS: Well of course I agree with a lot of what Alec says, almost everything in fact. Of course not all research should deliver impact. Our objectives are the same as Alec’s: excellence in research, progress at the boundary of knowledge, and that’s made the UK a world-leader. We believe in supporting, recognising and rewarding the kind of research that Sir Alec describes: rewarding risk-taking – our system will do that. But, Eddie! You said that we are about demonstrating in advance the impact of funding and Alec also said that. That’s just simply not what we are doing…
EM: And are these eighteen and a half thousand scientists wrong too – have they got the wrong end of the stick?
DS: I think in some respects probably they haven’t quite got the right end of the stick, and I am delighted to have this chance, as I’ve had going round the country, to talk with academics about their work and what we’re doing. We’re not looking at impact that will occur, we’re looking at impact that has occurred. We’re not looking at the work of individuals. We are absolutely not influencing individual research projects on the basis of impact. We’re looking at the breadth of work a university does: identifying excellent research, but indeed – looking at the contribution that excellent research makes to society.
EM: David Sweeney, thank you very much.
DS: Thank you.