The art of the specialist

April 10, 2008

After the shocking discovery and public admission (Letters, 6 March) that it is not possible to produce an algorithm for the economic impact of research, Philip Esler, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, clearly feels the need to proselytise for "impact"(Opinion, March).

In so doing he mentions some of the crazier ideas the AHRC has apparently adopted, namely the use of non-academic reviewers for academic work, compulsory interdisciplinarity and teaching entrepreneurial skills to researchers and students. Who exactly are the non-academic partners with whom a specialist in the early dialogues of Plato should engage? I fear that Esler is imagining a future in which traditional academic research in disciplines such as history, philosophy and literary criticism will have been largely replaced by heritage studies and its kin.

Interdisciplinarity is all well and good but the obsession with it is hastening the day when most academics are no longer recognisable as experts in a discipline. There is a very good reason why sensible academics prefer to engage with other specialists. In general, reaching a wider audience means reaching people who don't know much about the subject and hence are unable to detect error. Another good reason, of course, is that decent academic work is rather dull to the outsider.

The buzzwords most conspicuous by their absence in Esler's article are "truth" and "rigour".

The disregard for the traditional ideals of scholarship and the zeal for "impact" and all things interdisciplinary make the AHRC a threat to the quality of research in the arts and humanities.

James Ladyman, Professor of philosophy, University of Bristol.

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