The worst of all worlds

Hefce's impact plans threaten the very basis of innovation in knowledge and must be resisted, argues Sally Hunt

December 3, 2009

Academics put up with a lot: low levels of public investment; intrusive bureaucracy; endless quality directives; ever-higher workloads. They do so because they love their work. So it is a sign of just how unpopular the Higher Education Funding Council for England's research-impact agenda must be that 13,000 academics, including six Nobel laureates and 2,500 professors, have signed the University and College Union's petition calling for its withdrawal. Let's be in no doubt here - for the academy, enough is enough.

The signatories come from every kind of university, every discipline, and from both the applied and basic fields. Their multitude and diversity is a slap in the face for those who claim that the resistance to impact is a matter of sectional interest or academic Nimbyism.

The proposal to fund research based in significant part on its potential future "impact" amounts to an attack on basic or "curiosity-driven" research - surely a misnomer for the fascination that powers discovery in fields of the highest complexity and abstraction. In doing so, it threatens to wreck the very basis of innovation in knowledge.

Sir Harold Kroto's discovery of C60, Sir Tim Hunt's account of his almost accidental discovery of cyclins, or even Francis Crick and James Watson's use of X-ray crystallography to reveal the structure of DNA show two things about research: first, it is fascination that powers discovery; second, social and economic impact can take decades to become clear, even in the case of the greatest breakthroughs.

Hefce's proposal turns this on its head, but just as dangerous is the way in which it threatens the existence of whole fields of knowledge. There are few disciplines whose impact is so widely felt as pure mathematics, yet the pioneers of wavelet theory or algorithms, whose innovations underpin modern telecommunications and the internet, were frequently animated by the fascination of problem-solving at the highest levels of abstraction. At the other extreme, the humanities struggle to find any place in Hefce's impactful world: indeed, the funding body itself can't even suggest a meaningful measure of their impact. Yet humanities research costs a fraction of that in other fields and is no less important to our understanding of the world.

The truth is that applied and pure knowledge exist in a symbiotic relationship. Many people saw that the research assessment exercise privileged certain areas of research over others and penalised many areas of applied work. But by stressing impact, Hefce has simply shifted from one form of discrimination to another, subjecting all activity to a narrow, mechanistic test of value.

Our universities are world-beaters in research - doing more with less than their counterparts in any other developed country. We need greater public investment in both basic and applied research, not a false choice between them. The Hefce proposal is untested anywhere in the world, and its effect will be monitored by a body that contains only three working academics out of a committee of 14. Private firms and government departments will dominate - making it clear who is calling the tune in this brave new world.

The UCU is not opposed to research activity being accountable to the public. We have a duty to ensure that our work is explained to the wider world. But if Hefce's proposal goes through, we'll get the worst of all worlds. It risks eroding our basic science base yet further while diminishing the humanities and generating an odious sub-industry in academic spin. As well as trashing whole fields of knowledge that it considers irrelevant, Hefce risks inadvertently wrecking those it thinks it values. The stakes are high. We will submit every signature on our statement to Hefce. It is unthinkable that this proposal would be enacted without the academic community's support. It is time scholars were treated as active partners in the design of research-funding systems, rather than "hired help".

Hefce's consultation ends on 16 December. Don't leave it to colleagues to stand up for the profession. If you agree that research matters too much to be left to quangos, politicians and the business sector, then join thousands of your peers and sign our statement.

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