A thoughtless approach to research funding16 December 2009
What is the point of a university? Is it to challenge its students and push back the frontiers of knowledge? Or is it to turn out productive, profitable, commercial research?
This age-old debate has flared up again recently, after a government quango came up with new proposals for funding. Under the Research Excellence Framework, a quarter of university research funding will be tied to "economic, social, public policy, cultural and quality of life impacts". Research that has "demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society" will be rewarded and encouraged; research that lacks such demonstrable "impact" will not.
The consultation period over the planned reforms ends on Wednesday, and many academics have voiced their concerns: the pressure group Educators for Reform points out that the abstract research coming under attack has given us the X-Ray, the Google search algorithm and much else besides. But perhaps nowhere has the worry been as great as in my own field, philosophy, because the narrow conception of "impact" used by the Higher Education Funding Council for England seems to exclude most of the ways in which philosophy could possibly help society.
One of the main benefits of academic research is its impact on teaching. The best lecturers are almost always scholars engaged in their own research. They will be educating future teachers, journalists, lawyers, civil servants, and politicians - many of whom will take degree courses involving philosophy.
However, the council's proposals state that the effect of academics' research on their teaching is not the kind of "impact" they particularly wish to encourage. They are looking for research that leads to "creating new businesses", "commercialising new products" or improving "patient care or health outcomes".
Nor will philosophy's impact on other disciplines be considered. Mathematicians such as Alan Turing were able to develop the computer partly because of the efforts of Bertrand Russell and others to formulate rigorous definitions of the concept of mathematical proof. Einstein claimed that one of the precursors of his general theory of relativity was the Austrian philosopher of science Ernst Mach. However, this is again not the sort of "impact" that the council is looking for: it is more concerned with work that benefits "research users", such as businesses, hospitals and government departments.
True, some branches of philosophy have occasionally had a direct impact on political events. John Locke's political thought helped to inspire the American revolution; J S Mill's essay The Subjection of Women was a crucial part of the lobbying that led to the Married Women's Property Act of 1870; while the Oxford philosopher of law Herbert Hart's writings on "the enforcement of morals" strengthened the case for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
But while the council does suggest that one relevant indicator of "impact" would be "changes in legislation or public policy", academics will only be rewarded for research that influences politicians who succeed in changing the law - not for those who try, but fail. Since the former will typically be in government rather than opposition, this creates a dangerous incentive to produce research that will find favour with the ruling party.
What else can philosophy do to have an "impact"? Perhaps, under the "cultural" provision, we will be able to count research that is popularised on television or radio - so philosophy departments will focus on issues that might appeal to the media, doing serious damage to the quality of philosophical research, which needs to draw on fields that do not make such good TV, such as metaphysics and logic.
Our philosophy departments are admired at universities all over the world; they have long been magnets for students and scholars from overseas. We must not let the council wreck such a precious asset in this clumsy and ill-judged way.