Mention the word “impact” to any university academic at the moment and it’s quite possible that they’ll look at you as if you’ve just come up with an offensive swear-word.
The reason is that this month marks the culmination of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This is an exercise designed to assess the impact of research carried out in British universities.
But why should such an exercise lead to negative reactions amongst so many academics?
Surely, unless you think universities should be ivory towers where intellectuals are removed from the practical concerns of everyday life, it can’t be wrong to ask them to justify their relevance to the outside world?
One reason is the way that impact is measured in this exercise. Academics taking part are asked to submit their four best publications over the last five years.
Their combined worth— based on the “impact factors” of the journals in which they appear—is then expressed as a single numerical figure.
The scores awarded are not only then used as a measure of an academic’s success but affect how much funding universities get for research.
The problem with such an approach is that often the value of truly-cutting edge research only becomes apparent some years after it’s first reported.
In the biochemistry tutorials I gave to first-year medics I often mentioned Nobel laureate Peter Mitchell. He discovered how our cells turn food into energy but spent decades trying to get his findings accepted.
And groundbreaking research may take many years to bear fruit in terms of practical benefits.
The first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, but was only developed as a medicine by Florey and colleagues in 1941. This was because its value for treating injured soldiers was recognised as vital for the war effort.
Both the developments of IVF, and the contraceptive pill, were initially seen as too controversial to be publically funded. These projects were only able to continue through donations by private individuals.
The REF is likely to make it even harder to carry out research that’s controversial or where future practical benefits are less clear. This is due to its short-term focus and emphasis on immediate impact.
If this is true of the natural sciences, it’s surely an even greater problem for the humanities and social sciences. How would one assess the impact, I wonder, of a valuable new insight into Shakespeare’s plays?
And what about subjects like economics where uncovering the truth means challenging myths about the stability of the very capitalist system that funds universities?
Unfortunately, a lot of what passes for scientific analysis of the social world in our universities seems to me to be anything but.
How else to explain the complete inability of most mainstream economists to explain the underlying causes of the current crisis in capitalism? Or the exclusion of figures such as Marx from so many university syllabuses?
Sometimes though, it seems that even an exercise designed to reduce academic achievement to a number can yield some useful insights.
The science journal Nature recently reported an attempt to use this approach to rank every past and present scholar in the world. I wonder if you can guess who the winner was? Yes, by a wide margin, it was none other than Karl Marx.