RCUK abandons impact formula

Councils admit defeat in hunt for algorithm to show economic value of research, reports Zoe Corbyn

March 6, 2008

The research councils have abandoned plans to develop a formula to calculate the economic impact of the research projects that they fund.

The seven councils have conceded that it is not possible to accurately quantify the value to the economy of a diverse range of research projects.

The move has delighted critics who argued that the Government's "economic impact" agenda is damaging blue-skies research and discouraging the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Writing in today's Times Higher Education, Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, ridicules the proposals. He says that their death was "rather sad, since it would certainly have added to the gaiety of nations to see the result".

In October, Research Councils UK mooted the intention to change the peer-review process to ensure that the future impact of research projects was considered when deciding which proposals to fund.

Philip Esler, RCUK's "knowledge transfer champion" and chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, also said the councils were developing an algorithm to measure impact.

"We want to get to the stage where we can say that with an investment of x we get a return of y," he said. But last week he told Times Higher Education that there were so many variables that the councils had "given up" trying to find a formula.

"At this stage, the research councils don't believe that a quantitative assessment is possible," he said. "Although we have been able to quantify economic impacts from a range of case studies, we don't believe we successfully generated a methodology to scale up to cover the entirety of our funding. We hoped to able to but in the end we weren't."

Martin Taylor, the vice-president of the Royal Society, said: "By pursuing an algorithm-based approach, RCUK was in danger of oversimplifying the relationship between knowledge creation and economic impact ... We hope this is a sign that it will take a more sophisticated approach in future."

Peter Main, the director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, said the plan "would have led to unfair treatment and, possibly, an undesirable incentive for concentrating activity into a small number of areas".

He said attention needed to be focused on the role of blue-skies research in driving the economy rather than looking for an "easily identified, relatively short-term return".


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