Not all impact is financial 1

April 23, 2009

The story "V-c casts doubt on humanities funding" (16 April) reports on University of Exeter vice-chancellor Steve Smith's criticism of researchers in the humanities and social sciences for their reluctance to answer the Treasury's favourite question: what is the impact of your research on the economy?

Is this, as the Exeter head seems to imply, another example of academics being churlish and arrogant? Or is it an example of that hard-learnt lesson from childhood - a lesson that social scientists who use the interview technique understand only too well: ask a silly question and you invite a silly answer.

There is nothing silly about the Treasury asking what society gets from spending money on research so long as the Treasury keeps an open mind on the ways in which research can benefit society. But my experience of Treasury-think is that it permits just one view on this matter: research can only create wealth if it benefits the business sector. The fundamental axiom of Treasury economics seems to be that only business can create wealth.

No one doubts that business creates wealth, but nobody I know (whether in business or academia) thinks that business has a monopoly on that talent. Would we seriously argue that teaching a student to understand music can create wealth only if it makes him or her into a more productive accountant? Would we seriously argue that teaching a student to understand Shakespeare can create wealth only if it makes her into a more successful barrister? Would we seriously argue that teaching students to understand the hazards of unregulated financial innovation can create wealth only if they follow a more successful financial career as a result? Surely not. For understanding on its own terms must be one of the very most precious components of our common wealth.

If Treasury officials want a serious answer to "what does research in the humanities and social sciences do for society?" then they should be prepared to couch it in serious terms and be prepared for answers that challenge their simplistic thinking on the subject.

Gavin Swann, Innovative Economics Limited.

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