Petition decries 'impact' agenda in research

June 11, 2009

More than 1,000 campaigners have signed a petition demanding the UK research councils reverse their policy to direct funds to "projects whose outcomes are specified in advance".

The petition is evidence of increasingly vocal discontent over the implementation of the research councils' "excellence with impact" agenda, under which academics are required to complete an "impact summary" for grant applications, setting out how they expect the work to be of benefit.

Arguing that blue-skies rather than directed research ultimately creates prosperity and wellbeing, it calls on the councils to "return to the mission of advancing the frontiers of human understanding".

"The ... taxpayer should not support investigations with foregone conclusions, however beguiling," it says. "We request the reversal of a policy now being applied by the UK research councils that directs funds to projects whose outcomes are specified in advance."

The petition was submitted to the Number 10 website by John Allen, professor of biochemistry at Queen Mary, University of London.

He said the fact it had "gone off like a rocket" was testament to the "frustration, annoyance and disappointment" researchers in the UK felt about the demands to describe in advance "exactly what they are going to discover and what use it will be".

"There is a corrupting influence of having to write bullshit about what you honestly believe is important, urgent and should be funded," he said. He added that most scientists and many members of the public understood that "if you know what the answer is going to be, it isn't research".

A spokeswoman for the councils declined to comment on the petition, but said they remained committed to supporting "excellent research" and ensuring it benefited "as many individuals, organisations and nations as possible".

"Where an applicant feels that their research is not likely to have an immediate ... impact, they should state that in their application," she said. "Excellent research without obvious or immediate impact will not be disadvantaged."

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