Archive for December 2, 2009

Negative Impact

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2009 by telescoper

After spending the best part of the last couple of days being prodded and poked and subjected to all manner of indignity in the name of medical science, I think it’s appropriate to return to the blogosphere with another rant. Before I start, however, I’d seriously like to thank everyone at the University Hospital of Wales at Heath Park  for making my visit there as brief and painless as possible. Everyone was very kind and very efficient. I’m not going to blog about the details, as Columbo doesn’t like reading about other peoples’ ailments.

Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion about the UK government’s agenda for research, particularly science research, that includes something called “impact”. The Research Excellence Framework (REF; successor to the Research Assessment Exercise, RAE) will include such a thing:

Significant additional recognition will be given where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life

Apparently, however, they don’t really know how to do this so they have set up a number of pilot studies to try to find out. I’d feel a little more comfortable if the bureaucrats had thought about what they were going to do before announcing that our future research funds were going to depend on it. Meanwhile, applicants for grants from any of the research councils must  include a statement of the “economic or social” impact their research will have.

Understandably, those of us working in “blue skies” research are very nervous about this new regime. There is more than a suspicion that the new emphasis on impact is intended to divert funds away from “pure” curiosity driven research and into areas where it can have an immediately identifiable short-term economic benefit. This has led to a petition, with over 13000 signatures, by the University and College Union calling for the impact statements to be abandoned.

I don’t know who is going to assess these impact statements, but unless they have a flawless ability to predict future technology I don’t think fundamental physics is going to score very well at all. To see my point, consider the case of  J. J. Thomson, who is generally credited with having discovered the electron and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1906. Thomson made extensive use of cathode ray tubes in his studies; these later found their way into sitting rooms across the world as essential components of the classic television set. But that took decades. I doubt if an impact panel looking at Thomson’s work – even if they were physicists rather than grey-suited bureaucrats – would have found any of it likely to lead to immediate economic benefit. The point is that when he discovered the electron it wasn’t because he was actually trying to invent the television set.

I think there are basically two possible interpretations of this impact business. One is that it is a deliberate plan to wind down fundamental research and use the money saved to subsidise UK industry. The other is that it’s another exercise in pointless box-ticking. I am in two minds. On the one hand, it is clear that the recent behaviour of the Science and Technology Facilities Council shows strong evidence of the former. Fundamental research is being slashed, yet projects involving space technology have been funded on the nod without scientific  peer review. On the other hand, the RCUK Impact “Champion”, a person by the name of David Delpy, has written in the Times Higher to defend the new agenda. Consider the following paragraph

Recently I have read that some believe it is impossible to predict the economic impact of blue-skies research. To be clear, we are not asking for accurate predictions – simply a consideration of potential. Basic research underpins all disciplines and builds pathways to new technologies with economic and social applications. It may build on an existing body of knowledge, connect to other research around the world or attract new industries to the UK. There are many routes to impact. I believe that I could write a statement indicating potential impact for any proposal I have seen, and to hear that bright academics say they can’t do it sounds a little disingenuous.

Champion Delpy thus suggests he could write a statement for any proposal he has seen, which sounds to me like an admission that what is called for is just a load of flannel. In fact, if he’s paid to be the Impact Champion perhaps he should write all the bullshit and save us scientists the need to jump through these silly hoops? Or perhaps we could get one of those little Microsoft Office Assistant things:

Hello. Looks like you’re writing an Impact Assessment. Would you like me to pad it out with meaningless but impressive-looking socio-economic buzzwords for you?

If it’s just another exercise in vacuous bureaucracy then it’s bad enough, but if it is the other possibility then of course it’s even worse. It could be the end for disciplines like astronomy and particle physics as well as the end of Britain’s history of excellence in those areas. I’ve already blogged about my view of short-termism in research funding. Essentially, my point is that government money should be used to fund precisely those things that don’t have immediate economic benefit. Those that do should be funded by the beneficiaries, i.e. commercial companies.

Politicians probably think that all this complaining about impact means that scientists  are arrogantly assuming that the taxpayer should fund them regardless of the cost or the benefit. I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s very unfair. I’m very conscious that my research is funded by Joe Public; that’s one of the reasons I think I should spend time giving public talks and doing other outreach activities. But I think the public funds me and others like me to do “useless” things because, in the end, useless things are more important than money.

The government is probably right to say that the UK economy doesn’t benefit as much from our scientific expertise as is the case with other countries. The reason for that, however, lies not with our universities and research laboratories but with our private industrial and commercial sectors which are, for the most part, managed with a very low level of competence. British universities are demonstrably excellent; our industry is demonstrably feeble. The persistent failure of the private sector to invest in research and development shows that it is in drastic need of a good shake up. British companies, not the taxpayer, should be paying for research that leads to profit for them and for that to happen they will have to learn to engage better with the University sector rather than expecting inventions to be served up on a plate funded by the taxpayer. Universities and research labs should continue do what they’re good at,  maintaining a culture within which curiosity and learning are promoted for their own sake not just as part of the dreary materialistic cycle of production and consumption that is all we seem to be able to think about these days.

So at the end I’ve come to the conclusion that, perhaps, insofar as it can be demonstrated, economic impact should be included in the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework. Research which leads directly to the economic gain of the private sector is  precisely the type of research that the taxpayer should not be paying for. If it can be proven that a given department has engaged in such activity, its state funding should therefore be cut and it should be told to recover the funds it has misused from the company that has benefitted from it. Economic impact should be included with a negative weight.

And if you think that’s a silly point of view, consider what happens with the other major part of a university’s activity, teaching. Students, we are told, are the primary beneficiaries of their education so they should have to pay fees. In the current regime, however, they only do so when their earnings reach a certain level. If commercial companies are to be the primary beneficiaries of state-funded research, why should they not likewise be asked to pay for it?