Humanities overlooked by politicians

... but metrics won't improve things, says British Academy. Zoe Corbyn and Hannah Fearn report

September 18, 2008

The British Academy has raised "serious concerns" that politicians are failing to appreciate the value of humanities and social-science research.

But in a report his week, the academy in effect rejects the conclusion of a six-month study into the issue, which warns that the fields will remain "undervalued" unless a measurement is devised to quantify their impact on policy, the economy and society.

In a foreword to the academy's report, Punching Our Weight: The Humanities and Social Sciences in Public Policy Making, its president, Baroness O'Neill, says: "Our findings reveal serious concerns that policymakers are not realising the full potential of the contributions that humanities and social-science research can make ... Policymakers and academic researchers alike are agreed that more should be done to strengthen that contribution."

Alongside its report, the British Academy made public the report it had commissioned for advice. The advice, Maximizing the Social, Policy and Economic Impacts of Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, by a team at the London School of Economics, says: "What gets measured gets better valued. There is a pressing need to better record how the humanities and social sciences currently achieve impacts, as the first step to systematically trying to expand those impacts in the future."

It recommends that a "common framework of measures" be devised by funding agencies, learned societies and individual discipline bodies to quantify the impact of research and put a figure on its worth.

But the British Academy report, led by Sir Alan Wilson, chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and former director-general for higher education at the former Department for Education and Skills, rejects any suggestion that simple metrics should be used to quantify the impact of research in the humanities and social sciences.

"There is a risk that pressure to develop simplistic measures will eventually lead to harmful distortions in the quality of the research that is funded by the research councils," it says. "There needs to be a greater awareness among government and policymakers of the damage that over-simplistic indicators might cause."

Instead, the British Academy report calls for "dialogues and partnerships" to address the "serious concern" that public policymakers are failing to realise the full potential of the research.

Graham Crow, a professor of sociology at the University of Southampton, welcomed the British Academy's "bold" rejection of metrics. It would produce an "inflexible" system and send the "wrong messages", he said.

John Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and chair of the Political Studies Association, said: "The danger with the qualitative approach is you rule out blue-skies research ... everything has to become 'policy relevant'."

He said there was an added worry of what would happen if the research turned out to be of limited benefit when quantified; and working out how to assess impacts empirically was "easier said than done".

An academy spokesman said that although the LSE research had "played a valuable role in helping to assess the scale of the problems", it was an independent study addressing a less immediate priority and its suggestions were neither accepted nor rejected. Sir Alan's report was commissioned to explore practical ways to forge stronger links between academics and the Government.

See www.britac.ac.uk.

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