The virtues of silliness

September 15, 1995

Countdown to the research assessment exercise: four academics express their reservations.

This exercise will involve an assessment of the quality of the research undertaken in university departments between January 1992 and March 1996, and its results will be published in 1997.

As the exercise looms, it is coming to eclipse all other topics of conversation in the nation's senior common rooms. In the last year, I have, for example, been told by a professor of law in one institution that "anything less than five out of five will be a big disappointment", while, in another, it was intimated to me that "we could be the first old university law department in the country to get a rating of one".

Common to both statements was the grim tone in which they were uttered - which revealed acute sensitivity to the consequences of underachievement in research: viz, financial dislocation (as funding ebbs away), reputational damage (following a slide down the research league table), and psychological malaise (as claims to scholarly prowess are undercut).

I have fallen prey to the same fears, which have engendered in me an officious outlook manifesting itself in a much-increased interest in the research- related doings of my colleagues. Are they researching? Are they publishing in credible journals? If not, why not? Such officiousness is understandable, for those who choose to be underactive in the research sphere are no longer making purely personal decisions. They are, rather, engaging in behaviour which will impact detrimentally on their colleagues.

It is a short step from the contemplation of such consequences to the search for, often brutal, solutions: eg "Can't we get the unproductive either to move on to teaching-only contracts or to take early retirement?" Whenever questions of this sort race through my mind, they are accompanied by feelings of guilt. Why? Because they savour of betrayal - a betrayal of the view of academic life that I entertained on first being appointed to a lectureship. At that time, I regarded the academy as affording what might be termed a high-trust working environment: a place where individuals were given broad scope to pursue often rather idiosyncratic lines of thought in the hope that every once in a while something significant would emerge. Questions of the sort posed above are the stuff not of a high- but of a low-trust environment and it is for this reason that I speak of betrayal. Such questions are the predictable consequence of the research exercise - a project which, in its pursuit of value for money (by relating research funding to performance) and informed consumer choice (by providing students with information on comparative performance of institutions), constitutes the primum mobile of the present move towards a low-trust environment.

Should we be worried about this change? In my view, we should. While there can be no denying that a high-trust context opens the way for exploitative behaviour on the part of academics, it may be that the present move to a low-trust environment will have a detrimental impact upon the quality of university research. Relevant to this suggestion is the memorable observation by Ludwig Wittgenstein that "If people never did anything silly, nothing intelligent would ever get done." This remark yields a significant insight: when we take risks, and in so doing behave in ways that those around us might term "silly", we occasionally make significant discoveries. Potentially beneficial activity of this sort cannot be expected very often in the environment being fostered by the research exercise. We can expect, instead, to encounter play-it-safe strategies, eg engaging in "mainstream" research activity rather than pursuing potentially path-breaking, paradigm-shifting projects which the academic community may, precisely because of their novelty, be uneasy about assimilating.

If I am right in suggesting that the exercise may tempt researchers down the road of conventionality, then there seems to be a basis upon which to doubt its utility. A return to the pre-research assessment exercise past might provide a better route to the future.

Richard Mullender is lecturer in law, University of Exeter.

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