Point of impact

Researchers need the freedom to take risks, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

August 26, 2010

They can be irritating. Newcomers to your department or college bore and berate you with explanations of how much better things are elsewhere. Readers of this column probably feel the same annoyance when I praise higher education in the US and propose it as a model for Europe. But the risk is worth taking amid bickering over British research councils' determination - or is it merely the reflex action of la garde qui meurt mais ne se rend pas? - to impose "impact" funding on a screaming, kicking research community.

The US, by universal acclaim, is pre-eminent in research, spends hugely more on it than any other country and outstrips the total spending of the EU by about a third. Britain's reputation, meanwhile, is in decline and, if the impact proposals go through, looks doomed.

Most research in the US, by volume though not by value, is funded "in house" by universities and research institutes. Typically, in major institutions, academics receive, as of right, annual grants that they use at their own discretion to fund whatever projects appeal to them. They do not have to fill in forms, submit proposals, compete with each other or undergo any other time-wasting or nerve-racking procedures.

Accounting is usually simply a matter of submitting receipts. Grants of this kind rise year by year with the recipient's experience and achievements. Trusted and accomplished professors can end up handling significant sums. The freedom the system confers to pursue hunches, take risks and change minds is one of the main reasons why senior US academics are happy and productive in their work. Impact is not an issue.

Much external funding comes from research foundations that exist to make life easier, richer and more useful for scholars and scientists. Most are private charities, but some of the biggest are independent agencies, funded by government but free to make judgements about where to direct resources on academic grounds. The national scientific and medical foundations enquire about the potential applications of proposed research, but when they speak of "impact" they usually mean negative environmental impact and regard it as fatally disqualifying.

The mission statement of the humanities foundation proclaims a high-minded notion of the public usefulness of its work: "Because democracy demands wisdom, the National Endowment for the Humanities serves and strengthens our Republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans." To get a grant from a foundation is a wearisome business, but universities like mine have dedicated administrative staff who link every idea to the relevant grant-making body and fill in the forms. There is no need to fret, or even think, about impact.

When government, business or, sometimes, the big foundations want impact-oriented research, they identify the impact themselves. They know better than academics whether they need, say, a new bomb or drug, or whether they want to identify a new market or social trend, or how they want to modify popular prejudices or common assumptions. They commission work from researchers accordingly, or put it out to tender, like any project in search of a contractor, for universities and research institutes to respond. At every level, researchers are spared the obligation to envisage impact for themselves.

In general, the US system recognises the fact that intellectual problems, not practical ambitions, inspire most academic research. That is what makes it academic. Impact is a deadly criterion because great outcomes are often either accidental by-products of the research that leads to them or long-term consequences unforeseeable, by definition, to the researchers. When Zacharias Jansen and Hans Lippershey combined lenses they did not know that their work would disclose new visions of the cosmos. When Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier worked on phlogiston, they did not realise the implications of the discovery of oxygen. When Lazzaro Spallanzani explored the problem of spontaneous generation, he did not expect either germ theory or the canning industry to emerge as a result. When Michael Faraday tinkered with electromagnetism, he did not foresee telegraphy and electric light. Neither Gregor Mendel in his work with sweet peas nor Thomas Hunt Morgan with his fruit flies could know how genetics would develop in long-term consequence.

The Japanese researchers who observed macaque monkeys in the 1950s did not anticipate the opening of new frontiers in primatology and a revolution in human self-perceptions. If Columbus had correctly identified the objective of his transatlantic exploration, he would not have got funding. Darwin would have been denied a place aboard the HMS Beagle if he had claimed to see where his participation would ultimately help to lead.

Britain needs a research culture more like that of the US. It is outrageous that the research councils persist in advocating impact, when everyone who knows about the history of research and almost everyone with practical experience of grant-seeking fears and loathes it.

Scientific governance in Britain, it seems, is so sclerotic that the placemen who control it are incapable of admitting they are wrong or inhibited from changing their minds. A heroic handful of leading academics, marshalled by Don Braben, have had to sacrifice time and energy condemning the uncommendable and arguing the obvious. David Cameron and David Willetts seem to be able to see the dangers of impact. Let us hope they have the courage to overrule their officials.

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