Only scholarly freedom delivers real 'impact' 2

November 5, 2009

We the undersigned members of the research assessment exercise 2008 philosophy sub-panel wish to register our deep concerns about certain aspects of the research excellence framework consultation document, which we will be bringing to the attention of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

One concern relates to the use of impact as a measure of research quality in an area such as philosophy, which is largely theoretical. We do not oppose the idea of measuring or rewarding impact grounded in excellent research, but don't accept that the most useful role, intellectually or economically, for impact factors to play is assessing research quality.

If research-driven impact is tightly correlated with quality, there is no need to add it to the REF methodology; it is superfluous. But we see no reason to suppose that impact, on a 10-15-year scale, is positively correlated across the range of philosophical sub-areas with research quality. Adding impact assessment to REF profiles as a measure of research quality is likely to do harm and could lead to seriously distorted assessments of such quality.

Ours is largely a discipline where research aims are pursued for their intrinsic worth. We know that the Government accepts the need to publicly fund pure research. Taxpayers who are unhappy maintaining this tradition, which dates back to the foundation of universities in Europe, can easily be shown the social and economic benefits that have arisen from it, often in utterly unpredictable ways.

Few disciplines can claim to have had as much impact as philosophy has had in its 2,500-year history. It does not make sense to judge it in timescales of 10-15 years. The emergence of the general programmable computer occurred more than 60 years after the investigations of the philosopher Gottlob Frege into logic and artificial languages, a breakthrough kick-starting a project that laid the intellectual foundations for computer software. And it was almost as long a gap before the pure research into black-body radiation by Einstein, Planck and others led to the microelectronic technology that underwrites the hardware end of modern IT.

It is a mistake to think that politicians, business leaders or civil servants can devise tests to spot which curiosity-driven research is likely to bear practical fruit, as big a mistake today as it would have been in Frege's day.

Once the Government has decided how much pure research should be funded directly from the public purse, it should leave it to academics to decide, on the basis of research quality alone, the relative merits of units of submission. Accordingly, we believe that Hefce should give panels the flexibility to decide the role impact should play in identifying the best research.

We think the current proposals are likely to damage UK philosophy and its worldwide reputation, and we urge Hefce to reconsider.

Alexander Bird, University of Bristol;

Ruth Chadwick, Cardiff University;

Roger Crisp, University of Oxford; and 12 others.

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