What should an academic do if they think their life’s work has had no real-world impact whatsoever?
This is the question that confronted Peter Taylor-Gooby, a distinguished social scientist who has been appointed OBE and elected a fellow of the British Academy for nearly four decades of research into public trust, the decline of the welfare state and its replacement by market ideas.
“Market principles dominate social policy, the welfare state is in retreat and attitude data show a collapse in public trust in politicians, state institutions and benefit claimers,” he told Times Higher Education. “My academic output made no difference to anything."
But Professor Taylor-Gooby, a professor of social policy at the University of Kent, is not nearly as downbeat as you might expect. “It doesn’t annoy me,” he said, adding that “life goes on”.
Instead, he decided to write a novel, The Baby Auction, which he hopes will get readers to “feel, not just intellectually understand” the implications of a world dominated by market principles in a way academic writing perhaps never can.
The novel follows characters who live in Market World, where as the title implies, every single product, service or act of compassion and care must be reduced to a monetary transaction.
Although Professor Taylor-Gooby has spent his entire life writing about market-driven inequality and exploitation, he came to believe that only through a novel was it possible to truly understand how real people might respond to such a society. “Social science needs to tap the imagination as well as cold reason,” he argued.
Market World might sound as though it shares some similarities to the societies evoked in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, but Professor Taylor-Gooby said he was not sure whether it counted as a dystopia.
“Market World is a viable world and it has many attractive features,” he said. For example, “there is no discrimination except on how much money you have”.
“I’m not simply someone who wants to bash markets,” he added. Instead, he hopes The Baby Auction – the profits from which will go to the homelessness charity Shelter – will illustrate how difficult interpersonal trust becomes in a world dominated by them.
Professor Taylor-Gooby’s frank admission that his research has had no impact – outside social science, at least – might not thrill those who submit his work to the next research excellence framework, where academics are expected to demonstrate real-world influence.
But, he argued, the impact agenda as it currently existed was “fundamentally misguided” not because academia cannot make a difference, but because impact happens as the result of a body of work, not just a single paper.