Academic knowledge must be socially useful 1

October 8, 2009

Last week, Times Higher Education made a spirited defence of the importance of university research being independent of political or economic goals. The University of Warwick's Steve Fuller supported comedian David Mitchell's suggestion that "pointless studies" should be prioritised for public spending ("The mirth-making candidate? Peep Show star's REF critique the right stuff for councils", 1 October), while the Institute of Ideas' Claire Fox suggested that scholarship should be "freed from its subordination to pragmatic objectives" ("Academy strikes back: the fight for 'useless' knowledge starts here").

Their comments will find a receptive audience among scholars frustrated by having to match their research to prevailing political and economic trends, dictated by innocent-sounding "themes" or less subtle "grand challenges". But while they make a compelling case for not allowing university research to become the Government's evidence-gathering arm, their comments will infuriate most non-academics.

Their arguments are couched in anti-establishment language and position academics as the guardians of truth-seeking. But the golden age of academia they long for was far from a meritocracy where independent inquiry ruled. Their desire to see research prised away from pragmatic objectives risks a return to intellectual elitism.

While economic impact is clearly a bizarre metric to assess university research, social relevance is not. Fox may wish that research did not have to bother with pragmatic realities, but for those whose quality of life is contingent on them, there is no choice. Even if academics ought to be free from government priorities or market forces, surely they should be responsive to social needs?

Most academics no doubt will feel that they are responding to a societal need of some sort. But Adair Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority, recently surprised the City by conceding that parts of the financial sector have become socially useless. In seeking to protect academia from becoming an extension of the capitalist marketplace (an honourable goal), we must not forget that the purpose of our research should be the advancement of socially useful knowledge - not simply the satisfaction of our own curiosity.

Adam Corner, School of Psychology, Cardiff University.

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