If this isn't social 'impact', what is?

Concerns are raised after widely used political project fails to secure funding. Paul Jump writes

Political commentators have reacted with dismay to the news that a long-running research project into parliamentary rebellions is to come to an end.

The study of voting behaviour of MPs and peers was conducted by Philip Cowley, a prominent professor of politics, and was posted online on the website www.revolts.co.uk.

However, the site will now close after the continuing study was turned down for a grant designed to fund ongoing projects that have potential for major "impact".

It was widely used by both parliamentarians and political journalists, and has been held up as a prime example of the sort of social and economic "impact" that academics are being asked to produce.

It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council during the 2001 Parliament and for part of the 2005 Parliament.

But Professor Cowley, who is professor of parliamentary government at the University of Nottingham, told Times Higher Education that the project would have to be "put into hibernation" after the ESRC rejected his application for a grant from the Follow-on Funding scheme, which would have allowed the research to continue in the new Parliament.

A spokeswoman for the ESRC confirmed that the fund was intended to provide ongoing support for projects that had potential for "direct and quantifiable economic benefits or wider impacts that will benefit society more generally".

Only 19 per cent of applications in the first grant call had been successful, she added.

Professor Cowley's application was supported by the Hansard Society, the House of Commons Library, the BBC's Research and Analysis Unit and The Guardian newspaper. Its rejection prompted calls for the ESRC to reverse its decision.

The ESRC's reviewers of the application were extremely positive.

One said it was "exactly the sort of proposal that should be funded under the Follow-on Fund", and that it had the potential to reach millions of people through its use by the media.

Professor Cowley said he accepted that being turned down for grants was part of academic life and that the ESRC should not bow to media pressure to change its mind. However, he added that the case did raise questions about the research council's understanding of impact.

John Benyon, professor of political studies at the University of Leicester and chair of the College of Learned Societies of the Academy of Social Sciences, described the ESRC's decision as "surprising and regrettable".

"Professor Cowley's site is an excellent example of effective public engagement and knowledge transfer at a time when academics are being encouraged to do more of it," he said.

Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, added that Professor Cowley's work had "a fair claim to be among the most effectively communicated and influential pieces of political science in the last decade".

He said the project would have been even more important in the new era of coalition government.


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