Professor turns to novel writing as his research ‘had no impact’

Welfare state expert Peter Taylor-Gooby cheerfully admits his research has had no real-world influence – but hopes a book might

September 1, 2016
Plastic bag full of baby dolls
Source: Alamy
Creative force: ‘social science must tap the imagination and cold reason’

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.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments


Print headline: For impact, use a novel approach

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Daniel Mitchell illustration (29 June 2017)

Academics who think they can do the work of professional staff better than professional staff themselves are not showing the kind of respect they expect from others

As the pay of BBC on-air talent is revealed, one academic comes clean about his salary

Senior academics at Teesside University put at risk of redundancy as summer break gets under way

Capsized woman and boat

Early career academics can be left to sink or swim when navigating the choppy waters of learning scholarly writing. Helen Sword says a more formal, communal approach can help everyone, especially women

Thorns and butterflies

Conditions that undermine the notion of scholarly vocation – relentless work, ubiquitous bureaucracy – can cause academics acute distress and spur them to quit, says Ruth Barcan