Impact is driving us into the shallows

Stephen Banks worries that the push to show real-world engagement may bury the ‘deep knowledge’ we ought to treasure

September 8, 2016
Dolphin swimming in shallow water
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The recently published Stern report on the future of the research excellence framework endorsed the inclusion of impact within the factors to be assessed. But while I have spent much of my working life in the “real world” with which the impact agenda is designed to encourage engagement, I worry greatly that the approach is misguided.

After graduating in ancient Near Eastern history in 1984, I worked for the Home Office. There, we fretted over the threats facing the UK, Irish and Palestinian terrorists chief among them. To my knowledge, no one ever mentioned Islamic fundamentalism.

Nor, I think, could that threat have been foreseen. Even so, ever since it became apparent, any number of “experts” have stepped forward to pen weighty tomes on terrorism, the Taliban, Islamic State and so on. Some are undoubtedly excellent, yet mere opportunism often reigns. Some authors’ claims to authority rest on geographic myopia: the idea that a stay in Israel, for instance, qualifies them to write about Iran 1,000 miles away. And one suspects that much of the genre has been produced in ignorance of the regional languages.

Many of the authors are journalists; but, egged on by the impact agenda, plenty of academics have rushed out similarly flimsy tomes. All to the good, you might argue: university research should address itself to the challenges of our times. But we should be careful. There is a danger that academics succumb to the fatal embrace of those interested in interrogating the world in no greater depth than is necessary to fill the headline of a red-top newspaper.

In truth, the value of academia often lies in its ability to keep aloof from the fashions of the day. The deep knowledge thereby created is our inheritance from the past and our legacy to the future. We have been told that society has had enough of experts, but perhaps the problem lies not in the notion of the expert but to whom we attribute that label.

As the Chilcot report has just confirmed, the UK recently involved itself in a war of regime change in Iraq with all the sophistication of a navvy trying to adjust a complex watch with a sledgehammer. Who could have warned us of the likely consequences? Not the “security correspondents” of the BBC, the vacuity of whose initial coverage did so much to conceal the horrors. Not the generals, whose vested interests were later engaged in assuring us that it was all going so well. But had we consulted those academics who have spent decades studying the allegedly obscure regional cultures just for the sake of it, they would surely have flagged up the immense cultural diversity of the region and the fragility of the states of which the Western forces ultimately fell foul.

If we wish to better understand and interact with the world around us, no form of knowledge can be safely consigned to the domain of irrelevance. Despite my background, I believe passionately that one of the richest societies in the world, at the wealthiest moment in its history, can well afford to support a comparatively small class of people to teach future generations but also to look deeper than the transient fads of the times. We should treasure our theologians, our art historians, our botanists working on minor plant groups – both for their own sake and because, at some point, a proportion of the knowledge they have gleaned will turn out more useful than we can ever have imagined.

My concern is about more than preserving funding streams for “minor” subjects and “obscure” streams of research. I fear that the increasing rhetoric of relevance and impact may favour the nimble-footed opportunist to such an extent that universities can find no place for the serious-minded scholar even when they bring in funding. And I am anxious that the very notion of assigning points to research, via the REF and similar exercises, lacks both realism and humility, given the huge uncertainty that there will always be about what the future may bring.

There are plenty of spontaneous generators of ill-informed opinion in society. We must treasure the increasingly rare examples of deep knowledge that still exist.

Stephen Banks is associate professor of criminal justice and legal history at the University of Reading.

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