Utility judgement

July 19, 2012

Regarding "Failing the Turing test" (21 June): Fred Inglis' attack on the research excellence framework offers a sterile response to a dispiriting problem, and in doing so misses the point.

Impact statements are not the biggest problem the academy faces right now. True, in their present incarnation they are largely box-ticking exercises and their targets are misplaced, but it does not follow that they are illegitimate. Indeed, Inglis helpfully points out a very good example of a just and effective impact argument.

He talks of one admirable colleague "pursuing, with slightly out-of-date equipment, a bouncing particle that just might be of interest to Cern". This remark contains an illuminating misconception. Nothing to do with Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, is out of date. The technology of the Large Hadron Collider is at the limits of what is feasible, and the roughly £6 billion cost is provided by states in Europe and beyond.

But why? Do these governments really care about spontaneous symmetry breaking in the early Universe? No, they do not. What they do care about is the impact of highly motivated and hyperskilled graduate students getting burned out and heading into industry, and the impact of various European high-tech industries being pushed beyond what they thought was possible (or sellable).

And so we return to the REF and impact statements. In the UK, who makes the Cern impact argument? It is the Science and Technology Facilities Council; it is every physicist and graduate student in physics who is ready to make some version of the argument on demand and with conviction.

No one is embarrassed about it. The work is beautiful and culturally significant, but for the minority of the public that find this unpersuasive, the impact case is immediately available. This is not dishonest or cynical; it is recognition that it is OK to be in possession of more than one argument.

This is what is so infuriating about Inglis' critique. It refuses to make this argument or anything like it, and is contemptuous ("quislings and somnambulists") of any attempt to do so. I have no idea why Inglis thinks society should support him, but I do think that he (like the rest of the academy) has to account for himself. We grow no food on campus, so like every poet, priest or potter since the dawn of settled agriculture, we must explain why we have faith in the usefulness of what we do provide. Though the impact case is easy for the sciences, it is available for the humanities, too, if they choose to advance it.

The managerial culture is bad because it finds comfort in numbers and process, it invests them with more meaning than they bear, and then uses them in confident support of thin decisions. That is what is bad; that is what has to be fought.

The impact drill in its present form is of doubtful utility, but whining about it will win us no friends and distract us from the task of winning our universities back.

Norman Gray, SUPA School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Glasgow

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