Far from measurable 1

May 7, 2009

In his response to my opinion piece on the Arts and Humanities Research Council, its chief executive, Philip Esler, restates the policies of Research Councils UK (cue theme tune of Yes, Minister), but reveals more than he seems to realise when he so approvingly notes Steve Smith's knuckle-rapping of the arts and humanities for their failure to "co-operate with the Government's demands" ("We inhabit a changed world, and it is our duty to engage with it", 30 April).

In Esler's idyllic world, research impact is a measurable quantity that can be conceptualised in ways that "fall within the Treasury definition of 'economic impact'" (as it says in his consultation document). It can also be meaningfully estimated in advance by hopeful grant applicants in their obligatory impact summary and plan. In the real world - the world in which taxpayers support Esler's salary as he sets up his Swiftian mechanisms for measuring the unmeasurable - the goal of assessing the impact of research remains "as elusive as ever", even in the sciences, let alone the arts and humanities, as is pointed out in Zoe Corbyn's article in the same issue ("Bang for your bucks").

Peter Barry, Aberystwyth.

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