Assessing impact at proposal stage ‘absurd’

The Astronomer Royal has called for a system of scientific research funding which puts far less stress on “improving efficiency in the ‘office management’ sense” and sets out to “maximize the chance of landmark achievements”.

November 9, 2011

Sir Martin Rees, master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was speaking on “The Idea of a University” last night as part of a series of lectures marking the 10th anniversary of the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities.

Even in targeted medical research, he argued, new drugs take up to 20 years to develop, which should inevitably lead to “scepticism about attempts to assess impact in a way that’s ‘fine-grained’ and short-term enough to be used in the research excellence framework for funding allocations”.

It was even less feasible to assess impact at the proposal stage, he said.

“The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s injunction that grant applicants should think about the impact statement while framing a proposal will surely promote conventional thinking over boldness and thereby have a negative effect…Even the wizards of venture capital have a hard job assessing the commercial impact of a discovery.

“To expect a researcher, or a research council committee, to make any worthwhile judgement - and make it before the work has even been done - is surely absurd.”

Though “the difference in eventual impact between the very best research and the merely good is, by any measure, thousands of per cent”, Sir Martin pointed out that “we can’t predict who and when will make the great advances”.

In extolling the value of “‘free-wheeling’ research”, academics risked “being accused of an ivory tower arrogance that disregards our obligations to the public”, he said.

But he urged them to strongly counter such allegations.

“Our choices of research project are anything but frivolous: what’s at stake is a big chunk of our lives, and our professional reputation.”

Although Sir Martin expected a few universities to continue to “attract the lion’s share of research funding”, he also considered it “crucial to avoid formalising the ‘pecking order’, and to retain a system that allows excellence, and new graduate schools, to sprout and bloom anywhere in the university system”.

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