The mirth-making candidate? Peep Show star's REF critique the right stuff for councils

October 1, 2009

He has made his name as a cutting-edge comedian in hit television shows such as Channel 4's Peep Show.

But now David Mitchell, one half of the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, is being spoken of as research council leadership material after penning an analysis of the research excellence framework.

Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, told Times Higher Education that he was campaigning to get Mr Mitchell on to the board of one of the research councils because he had offered a "sensible" argument that academics had failed to make.

In his regular column in a Sunday newspaper this week, Mr Mitchell takes aim at the proposals to rejig research funding to focus on the economic and social impact of work.

He argues that "pointless studies" should be prioritised for public spending rather than cut, because this is the very research the private sector is unlikely to fund.

"Academic research with a demonstrable economic goal is not the sort that most needs government help," he writes.

"In fact, it's the very place that public money should never go - it'd be like spending the Arts Council budget on profit-making pantos instead of opera."

Professor Fuller said that while research council boards were traditionally manned by business people and academics rather than comedians, Mr Mitchell's "spot-on" articulation of the arguments, albeit to comic effect, was enough to recommend him.

He added: "He is saying such sensible things, why not? Especially when academics won't say them."

Professor Fuller is launching his campaign through his blog and on websites to encourage Mr Mitchell to stand for an upcoming position on either the board of the Arts and Humanities Research Council or the Economic and Social Research Council.

However, when contacted by Times Higher Education, Mr Mitchell said that while he was flattered that his musings on research funding "made sense to people in academia, 1,000 words in The Observer has more than exhausted my wisdom on the subject".

Indicating that he would not act on Professor Fuller's suggestion, he said: "For the academics who tried to teach me at university, that would be a joke too far."

The REF proposals, released last week for consultation, call for an assessment regime based on three elements: "output quality" (weighted at 60 per cent); "impact" (25 per cent); and "environment" (15 per cent).

The results will determine the allocation of about £2 billion in quality-related research funding each year.

The University and College Union has already voiced its opposition to the impact element of the REF regime. The union argues it is a threat to universities' academic freedom and risks restricting the chances of significant research breakthroughs.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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