Profit and loss

December 17, 2009

Coming from a commercial background into higher education, the ongoing argument about impact reminds me of similar ones about profit ("REF rivals square off over value of impact proposal", 10 December).

More enlightened business thinkers contend that profit flows naturally from getting lots of other things right. We all know that profit is essential for survival, but focusing on it as an output in its own right drives dysfunctional behaviour that reduces it in the longer term.

Most new businesses emerge from the passions of entrepreneurs and can generate huge profits when they gel with the needs of society. Organisations such as the global technology firm 3M generate innovative products by allowing staff a percentage of their time to pursue their pet ideas without the usual controls. On the other hand, the global downturn shows what can happen when profit is viewed as the only important output.

A research environment that has no impact on improving the lot of humanity would be pretty pointless, but such impact flows naturally from doing lots of other things right. As soon as you try to institutionalise impact, you will interfere with that process.

I have heard that the proponents of impact simply want academics to think a bit more about it, but even this can upset the process. It took only 40 years for the banks to change from the guardians of financial stability into addicts busy chasing their next hit of profit. Let's not send research down a similar road.

Bob Walder, London.

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