Managers and scholars divided as resistance grows to impact agenda

Senior figures discuss shortcomings as letters and petition reveal growing dissent. Zoë Corbyn reports

November 5, 2009

Academics have stepped up their campaign against the Government's push to fund research on the basis of its impact on society and the economy, as institutions admit they have failed to sell the agenda to staff.

There is growing opposition to both the use of impact in the forthcoming research excellence framework and the research councils' requirement that the potential economic impact of work be listed in grant applications.

In Times Higher Education this week:

- Forty-eight academics, including ten Nobel laureates and 26 fellows of the Royal Society, write an open letter to Research Councils UK calling for the withdrawal of the "ill-advised" policy;

- Almost the entire philosophy sub-panel from the 2008 research assessment exercise write voicing "deep concern" about the Higher Education Funding Council for England's proposed use of impact as a measure of research quality in the REF.

More than 2,300 academics have also signed a petition to the Prime Minister requesting the reversal of both research council and Hefce policies to "direct funds to projects whose outcomes are determined to have a significant 'impact'". It cites particular concerns for the humanities and social sciences.

However, resistance to the plans is also causing frustration among universities and funders. A policy round table last week hosted by the 1994 Group of small research-intensive universities and the British Library, "How can we maximise the impact of the UK's research base to meet national priorities?", revealed the extent of the frustration.

The event was attended by 25 senior sector figures who spoke under Chatham House rules - comments could be reported, but not attributed. They expressed a growing impatience with those who think impact is a "dirty word".

One attendee said the varying degrees to which academics spoke out against the impact agenda could be described as "the James Ladyman Index", a reference to the University of Bristol professor who began the petition to Number 10.

"You feel you are on a different side of the debate," he said. "The problem is not with the young people who are starting out or early-career researchers, but there is a middle territory which has rather lost the plot."

There was also agreement among attendees that universities had failed to convince staff of the virtues of the shift. "I have completely bought in to the impact agenda ... but it is very hard for us, from a institutional point of view, to convince researchers," another attendee said.

One suggestion put forward for managing those radically opposed to impact was "to take a large number of academics into a room and ask them to put their hand up if they wish their work to have no impact whatsoever ... I have yet to see a hand," the speaker said.

There was also a stark warning: if the academy fails to grasp the impact agenda, the round table heard, "it will not get a good settlement in the next spending round. Full stop."

The open letter to RCUK agrees that UK academic research has "substantial economic potential", but says that "hobbling it with arbitrary constraints" by requiring impact plans is "counterproductive".

Its signatories urge the councils to "find scientific ways of convincing the public and politicians that fostering academic freedom offers by far the best value for taxpayers' money and the highest prospects for economic growth".

The second letter, signed by 15 of the 16 members of the philosophy sub-panel, does not oppose measuring and rewarding impact, but derides its use in the REF to assess research quality.

The REF will replace the RAE as the method to distribute nearly £2 billion a year in quality-related research funding.

The letter argues that to apply an impact rating in a largely theoretical area such as philosophy - "where research aims are pursued for their intrinsic worth" - would harm the subject and lead to "seriously distorted" assessments.

The petition on the Number 10 website notes that although the arts and humanities have an impact, it is nearly impossible to judge it in the short term: "Academic excellence is the best predictor of impact in the longer term, and it is on academic excellence alone that research should be judged," it says.

Meanwhile, learned societies in the humanities and social sciences met at the British Academy last week to shape their responses to the REF consultation. There was widespread agreement that the impact weighting - which it is proposed will account for 25 per cent of REF scores - was too high, especially when the methodology was unclear.

"I haven't heard anyone who says this weighting is not too high," said Peter Golding, chair of the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association.

The impact agenda will be debated on 30 November at an event sponsored by Times Higher Education: "Blue skies ahead? The prospects for UK science".

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