Poisonous impact

A latter-day Socrates wouldn't stand a chance, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

December 3, 2009

Thank God I got out. The bliss of enjoying US terms of employment at a rich research university seems all the more precious as I look across the Atlantic and see how my colleagues and former colleagues in Britain are suffering. The notorious advantages of life in a US institution are easily measured: higher emoluments; guaranteed research funds for scholars in good standing, as part of one's contract of employment; a working life indemnified against amputation by the ferrum abscissionis of arbitrary compulsory retirement.

Unquantifiable blessings are even dearer to me. Where I work, the top brass spare academics from bureaucracy; they fill in forms for us; they provide professional help and expertise in encounters with the Government or grant-providing foundations and quangos. They know that intellectuals think, write, experiment and teach best when undistracted. In the US, the Government is mercifully remote and does not attempt to run higher education. Even in cash-strapped universities maintained by the states of the union, neither individuals nor departments have to account to the political authorities for their competence in research. Universities are trusted to validate each other's procedures and evaluate each other's achievements. There are infernal abuses from time to time in the publicly maintained universities: politically motivated witch-hunts against professors who offend one or other extreme; cruel funding cuts inflicted by philistine legislators. On the whole, however, most universities' miseries are self-inflicted and we don't fear that the state will make them much worse or devise tortures of its own.

So why does Britain have to endure barbarities such as the proposed research excellence framework? Readers of Times Higher Education must, by now, be as aware of this intrusive and hostile scheme as Prometheus was of the raven gnawing at his liver. The language of the proposal is so illiterate as to constitute a source of national shame. The values it reflects are so coarse, inane, shallow and meretricious as to leave readers convinced that the Government understands nothing about the glory of great learning or deep thinking or searching scholarship or creative science. The amount of data that the REF would demand from researchers and the expenditure of effort it would impose on universities are immensely wasteful of patience and sanity. Most depressing of all its defects, perhaps, is that the criteria it imposes on petitioners for public funds are sure to stifle good work. Imagine what would have happened to some of the great innovators of the past had they been judged by Lord Mandelson's myrmidons.

Socrates? Theory of universals? - "No wider economic benefits. Take hemlock!"

Thomas More? Utopia? - "No clear evidence of progress towards positive outcomes (such as the take-up or application of new products, policy advice, medical interventions and so on). Try private funding."

Marx? Communism? - "Striking absence of R&D investment from global business. Next time, try commercialising new products or processes."

Copernicus on heliocentrism or Vitoria on international law or Saussure on the nature of language? - "Sorry, guys, your impact outcomes were not the result of your own efforts to exploit or apply the research findings. So you score zero."

Darwin? Theory of evolution? Einstein? Theory of relativity? - "All very fine, but where's the enhanced social welfare and cohesion we told you we wanted? Try again."

Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire and the encyclopedistes? - "Well, yes, highly innovative (but not quite ground-breaking) impacts such as new products or processes, relevant to several situations have been demonstrated - so you lose only two stars."

The Government in Britain should get out of academia. Give universities endowments and let them get on with it, as the US did when it created the land-grant colleges that are now among the best universities in the world. Or leave religious orders, private philanthropists or far-sighted businessmen to found them and run them. Great work is too transcendent, too ethereal, too subtle, too complex, too long term in its effects for calibration by the crass criteria of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. If politicians insist on keeping their grip on universities, loosen it and allow the institutions to breathe. If you want academic minds to thrive, free them from inquisitorial form-filling. If you want researchers to transgress boundaries, don't hog-tie them with pinched purse strings. If you want brilliant minds to shine, clear the air around them. Don't occlude them with bureaucratic obscurity. If you want academic voices to ring out, don't strangle them with red tape, but stifle the circumambient noise of administrative gobbledegook.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson the Government needs to learn is that the purpose of research is not to accumulate "impact indicators" or "improve national security" or promote "growth in business revenue" but to multiply ideas, enrich minds, approach truth, stimulate debate, excite academic exchange and enhance lives in ways too wonderful to measure. The benefits to commerce, industry, health and social harmony are precious side-effects that can happen only if universities are well adjusted to their true purpose - just as a missile can hit a distant target only if its trajectory traverses a higher plane. The independent trustees who run my university and others like it in the US know this, and nurture institutions of happily incalculable public benefit. And I don't have to waste my time on the REF or anything like it.

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