Only scholarly freedom delivers real 'impact' 1

November 5, 2009

An open letter to Research Councils UK

The research councils have decided that research proposals should include details of their "potential economic impact", a term that they stress embraces all the ways in which research-related knowledge and skills could benefit individuals, organisations and nations.

Peer reviewers will be asked to consider whether plans to increase impact are appropriate and justified, given the nature of the proposals. However, academic researchers are primarily responsible for the impartial pursuit of knowledge. Richard Haldane acknowledged this many years ago, and the application of his famous principle, by which governments did not interfere in scientific policymaking, was spectacularly successful for decades.

Science is global, of course, and until relatively recently policies of non-interference flourished everywhere. The result was an abundance of unpredicted transformational discoveries, including the structure of DNA, the genetic code, the laser and magnetic resonance imaging, almost all of which came from pure research. These discoveries also stimulated unprecedented economic growth.

Earlier this year, some of us wrote to Times Higher Education (Letters, 12 February) expressing our concern with this requirement. We urged peer reviewers to stage a "modest revolt" by declining invitations to take potential economic impact into consideration. Our correspondence indicates that many more supported our recommendation than would publicly admit it. Researchers were concerned that participation in such a revolt might damage their careers.

However, by way of further encouragement, we would draw attention to this Russell Group statement (Response to the RCUK consultation on the efficiency and effectiveness of peer review, January 2007): "There is no evidence to date of any rigorous way of measuring economic impact other than in the very broadest of terms and outputs. It is therefore extremely difficult to see how such panel members (those expert in the economic impact of research could be identified, or the basis upon which they would be expected to make their observations. Without such a rigorous and accepted methodology, this proposal could do more harm than good."

This opinion from a body comprising the UK's leading research universities is a damning indictment. We the undersigned seek to persuade the research councils that their policies on potential impact are ill-advised and should be withdrawn. The research councils are, of course, striving to ensure continued public support and government funding for research. However, while UK academic research has substantial economic potential, hobbling it with arbitrary constraints is counterproductive. We urge, therefore, that the councils find scientific ways of convincing the public and politicians that fostering academic freedom offers by far the best value for taxpayers' money and the highest prospects for economic growth.

Donald W. Braben, University College London; John F. Allen, Queen Mary, University of London; William Amos, University of Cambridge; and 45 others in a personal capacity, including ten Nobel laureates.

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