Ignore us at your peril, warn the champions of curiosity

Academics' concerns over the effect of impact assessment 'met with contempt'. Paul Jump reports

November 11, 2010

The government is accused of treating Nobel prizewinning academics with "contempt" by failing to address their arguments against the research councils' impact statements.

In early September, a group of 50 senior academics, including 10 Nobel laureates, sent a dossier to the government explaining why they believe the research councils' "Pathways to Impact" statements are doing "incalculable harm" to researchers' creativity.

Don Braben, honorary professor of earth sciences at University College London, compiled the document after a meeting in July with David Willetts, the universities and science minister, and Alan Thorpe, the chief executive of Research Councils UK, in July.

Mr Willetts asked for evidence that the statements, which every grant applicant must complete, would discourage the kind of curiosity-driven research that typically leads to the most important discoveries.

Professor Braben sent Mr Willetts a dossier of evidence, including a list of 11 groundbreaking but unpredicted discoveries that he believes would not have attracted funding if an impact assessment had been made at the project formulation stage.

After a considerable delay, Professor Braben received a reply from Graeme Reid, the deputy director of economic impact in science and research at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Dr Reid said the research councils' peer review system was regarded as an "international benchmark of excellence" and Pathways to Impact was only one of several criteria that were secondary to excellence in making funding decisions.

He insisted researchers were merely required to "think about how they engage with potential beneficiaries of their research", rather than predict "either the future outcome of research or the impact the research might have".

But Professor Braben described the government's response as a "travesty". It ignored almost everything he had written and merely repeated RCUK's previous unsubstantiated assertions, he said.

"As deputy director of economic impact, Dr Reid is hardly neutral," he added. "Indeed, the minister is surrounded by people with a huge vested interest in current policies."

He said he had asked for another meeting with Mr Willetts to ascertain whether he had even seen the dossier, and to "resolve the outstanding issues".

Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, said it was "simply wrong" to say that researchers were not being asked to predict the impact of their research. He pointed to an RCUK document advising grant applicants to draft impact summaries in the early stages of proposal writing "so that it informs the design of your research".

Mark Bretscher, an emeritus scientist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, said this obliged applicants to invent "scenarios they know are spurious".

"How can researchers engage with potential beneficiaries without having to predict the outcome of research? It is nonsense," he added.

Sir Harry Kroto, currently at the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Florida State University, said the early dismissal by peers of his own Nobel prizewinning research into a new form of carbon was an example of why impact assessment was "essentially worthless" and would also "divert support from the fundamental sciences".

BIS and RCUK declined to comment.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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