The Research Excellence Framework, and the notion of impact

The Times Higher notes a split between university managers and academics with regards to the new Research Excellence Framework. The piece, and the comments below it, starkly show the difference of interests. Managers – some of whom met together under Chatham House rules to discuss the challenge – are briefed with taking a marketising government agenda to their academics. The indicator of performance (and therefore funding) is to be ‘impact’ and this will be measured in the short term. Academics point out that bad banks and politicians would do very well out of the new framework. A commenter called Pauline:

“What a shame Hegel, when filling in his AHRC funding application, couldn’t see into the future and claim that one day his lectures on history would feed into the forces that would eventually produce the Russian Revolution. Or that Wagner, applying for leave to write Parsifal, couldn’t assure the AHRC review panels that his ideas and music would one day be highly congenial to Hitler and thus help to bring about WW2! How’s that for Impact? Politicians would do rather well out of it. When you consider the Impact their decisions have, maybe funding councils should be asking us to prove our research will not have any life-threatening consequences and will be 100% harmless, benefiting only human knowledge and understanding.”

Here, in my view, is the most expressive and penetrating comment, by (Yale grad student and former Soviet, I think) Evelyn Preuss:

“oh, i’d love to rant about the esoteric nature of some of academia’s blossoms (which, at times, gives me the impression the author himself didn’t understand entirely what he wrote), the scholarly habit—or rather demand—of endlessly reciting maculature (after all, this defines the scholarliness of the product) and, yes, the limited reach—or let’s call it ‘impact’—of scholarly debate into stratas below and above in the caste system (hm, is that actually what the chatham house folks want?). and yes, i’d love to rave about that curious reflection of dominant ideology in scholarly production (of what use is academic freedom, if you don’t use it?!). but what it comes down to is whether my liberty is worth £3.50 today. what does putting an exchange value on ideas do to the ideas? ‘the human is only entirely human where he plays,’ an exceptionally hard-working academic with an immense impact on society decreed some two hundred years ago. play means being removed from the necessity of creating exchange value. if ideas such as liberty are what makes us human, shouldn’t we be happy to play? if play, in a societal form, is a waste of tax payers money, my liberty today is worth £3.50. with regard to the timing that ideas require to take some effect, some academics who made a indelible impact such as kant or frege were dead by the time their ideas became the coinage of discourse. the logic of the day trade, which makes any long-term investment seem non-sensical, surely would have killed them before they even set the pen to the paper. finally, what’s the impact of the current business valuation? the breathless imperative of market performance, which has emerged as the principal creation of economic value, has spelled ecological disaster for our planet (which, incidentally, is also an economic catastrophe) and might take humanity to the brink of extinction. is your life, or that of your children, worth £3.50, or how much that stock or bond has gained today (if it didn’t plunge to unforeseen depths, that is)? perhaps it’s time business learns from the humanities instead of trying to colonize the latter with its short-sighted assessments of value. the ideas of schiller, kant and frege are still around after two hundred years. yesterday’s profit evaporates with melting polar caps. the arctic ice is supposed to be gone next summer.”

Well said, Evelyn.

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