Anti-impact campaign's 'poster boy' sticks up for the ivory tower

Only academic excellence can deliver the benefits the state craves, James Ladyman tells Zoë Corbyn

December 17, 2009

James Ladyman is clear about where he ranks on the so-called "Ladyman index", which describes the commitment with which academics oppose the Government's "impact" agenda.

"This one goes to 11," he said, referencing the film This is Spinal Tap (1984), in which Nigel Tufnel, lead guitarist of a spoof rock band, says his amplifier must be louder than any other because its volume control goes up to 11, rather than ten.

Professor Ladyman is among a group of scholars who have deliberately turned up the volume on the debate about the Government's drive to measure and reward impact.

Should academics' work be judged - in part - by its impact on the economy and society? Or should scholars be left to get on with it, and let serendipity take its course?

The issue has become a flashpoint since the Higher Education Funding Council for England proposed a 25 per cent weighting for impact in the forthcoming research excellence framework, and the research councils began asking academics to state in grant proposals how their research may be of wider benefit.

No 'oddball maverick'

Professor Ladyman is an expert in the philosophy of science at the University of Bristol, where he holds a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to study "the foundations of structuralism".

He came to the attention of supporters of the impact agenda after launching a petition on the Downing Street website opposing Hefce's plans for the arts and humanities.

They coined the term "Ladyman index" to describe different degrees of hostility to the plans.

Professor Ladyman, who also has a Facebook Appreciation Society in his honour, said he had not intended to become the poster boy for opponents of impact.

He insisted he was no "oddball maverick", pointing out that some 16,000 academics - including a clutch of Nobel laureates - have signed a University and College Union petition opposing the use of impact in the REF.

"Are all these Nobel prizewinners saying that they don't want science to contribute to society? Don't be so stupid," he said.

Rather than "dancing to the tune of their political masters", universities and funding bodies should listen to why academics oppose the impact agenda, take the answers back to the Government and argue the case, he explained.

He characterised the debate as part of a "wider battle" for the integrity of the academy and posed the question: should the agenda be set by scholars' research interests or "what they can make exhibitions or television programmes out of"?

It is not that Professor Ladyman totally disagrees with impact: he thinks that academics have a responsibility to taxpayers and should make the case for their funding.

Rather, his beef is with the notion of making research funding dependent on impact, as Hefce plans to do in the REF, which will replace the research assessment exercise in distributing nearly £2 billion in quality-related research funding annually.

Professor Ladyman said he did not buy into the squabble about what percentage impact should count for in the REF, believing instead that it is a "completely corrupting concept" and, as such, should not count at all.

The only measure that matters

Scholarly work should be assessed on quality alone, he argued, and to adopt any other approach was tantamount to "falsifying the nature of what academic research is about".

His mantra is that the best scholarly work will eventually deliver the biggest impact anyway.

The real worry, he said, is that the inclusion of impact in the REF will create "selection pressure", promoting academic research that has "more direct economic impact" or which is easier to explain to the public.

Citing philosophy as an example, he said this would result in academics running "bullshit" and "intellectually bogus" courses for professionals in subjects such as medical and business ethics at the expense of "really high-powered academic research, which is what universities are supposed to be for".

"Having scholars pursue things for their own sake has been proven to lead to benefits for the rest of society," he said. "So why do they want to sacrifice this on the altar of short-term impact?"

Professor Ladyman also gives short shrift to Hefce's definition of impact, which does not include the effect scholars have on students.

"Students from abroad pay high fees to study with us because we are at the cutting edge of our disciplines," he pointed out.

As to the notion of the "ivory tower" - academics disengaged from the real world - he said that in a sense this is exactly how universities should be, insulating scholars from the pressure to make a fast buck.

He explained: "I don't mean I don't want to be accountable or participate in the rest of society or the wider culture, but if we must always be able to predict in advance the immediate value of what we are doing, then we will never develop as scholars, we will never acquire deeper understanding.

"You need some people whose only agenda is to find out the truth based on their curiosity."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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