Impact initiative will 'corrupt thinking', Nobel laureates claim

Nine Nobel laureates have thrown their weight behind a campaign urging academics to refuse to assess the impact section of research council grant applications they referee.

April 14, 2011

In a letter in today's Times Higher Education, the group says the research councils' "Pathways to Impact" initiative, which requires grant applicants to explain how they will maximise the impact of their research, "corrupts researchers' thinking, obliges them to prejudge results while planning their proposals and encourages them to aim for attainable goals".

The 49 signatories, who include 25 Fellows of the Royal Society, say researchers asked to review Pathways to Impact statements should "make such responses as 'I am not competent to assess the future potential socio-economic impact of this proposal'".

Two years ago, a smaller group of senior academics, also coordinated by Don Braben, honorary professor of earth sciences at University College London, called for a "modest revolt" by reviewers against impact.

Professor Braben admitted that not as many academics had made a stand as he would have liked. He suggested reviewers were wary of damaging their laboratories' future funding, saying that several of the senior figures he had approached had told him they supported him but "could not risk" adding their name to his letter.

He said his group was likely to launch a petition next week, but added that the quality of an argument should carry more weight than the number of people who endorse it.

The powers that be "continue to ignore us completely and say: 'Impact is a done deal'", he said.

Professor Braben added that Pathways to Impact should be abolished even if this resulted in a cut to the research budget. "It will permanently damage research by slowly eroding the environment in which people can be creative. The message will get around that you are in research to invent things that will be of use - and that will undermine the very purpose of a university."

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