Saturday, October 03, 2009

The REF and 'impact'

We don't often delve into the political side of things on MV, but this is an extremely important issue for philosophy in the UK. As many will know, there used to be the RAE: the research assessment exercise. This consisted of a panel of subject specialists reading and making a judgment on the (self-nominated) four best papers of every academic in the country put forward by their department (in practice, basically all the research active staff). The resulting department ratings controlled how much money they would get. Like any system, it of course had its problems, but it was beneficial in many ways. Departments could no longer afford to simply hire the person with the Oxbridge degree and ignore the non-Oxbridge person with a stack of papers in good places - it made hiring more meritocratic.

The RAE is no more. It is being replaced by the REF. It does not look like a change for the better. One bad change is that the panels are to be more coarse grained: it will no longer be simply philosophers judging philosophers, etc. But the most disturbing issue is that 25% of the grade a paper gets is now going to be on the 'impact' it makes. At least, they *say* it will be determined by the impact it makes: in practice, of course, it can't be, since no-one has a crystal ball - so the least they could do is be honest and tell us straight that 25% of the grade will be determined by its short term impact. At least wear the short-term-ism on your sleeve if that's what we're aiming for now!

"How do you determine the impact of a specific paper anyway?" one might ask. Yeah, good question. These guys need to read their Quine! The simple counterfactual account is obviously problematic (even putting aside epistemic problems). All signs point to a focus on narrow, direct, short term impact being what's going to be relevant. A disaster!

Alan Weir wrote on open response to the REF that's available here. It's well worth reading: I want to quote a section.

"The taxpayer can see how funding researchers to investigate solutions to
some immediate problem, a virus say, can be justified. But how can the
funding of pure research be justified? Well, since the research is carried
out for its own sake, those involved will think that centuries-long
traditions of transmitting a body of work of enormous intellectual,
cultural and artistic merit from one generation to the next is of great
value in its own right. But to the sceptical taxpayer we have a very
potent additional point to make. What if Albert Einstein, Max Planck,
Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, in trying to determine how the
mysterious sub-nuclear world of quantum physics worked, had been
constrained and directed by whether their research satisfied short-term
impact criteria? What, to move closer to my own area, if Gottlob Frege,
Bertrand Russell, and Kurt Gödel and others who devoted their lives to
investigating the nature of mathematical truth, logical consequence and
the light formal artificial languages can shed on them (and with no
thought to the possibility of automated reasoning machines of the type the
philosopher Leibniz had sketched) had been required to demonstrate the
impact their researches would have outside academe? Then no quantum
physics and modern micro-electronics, no artificial languages, recursion
theory and computer science; we would have likely remained at the level of
Victorian science and technology and all the practical, medical and
intellectual advances which microelectronics and computing have given us
would not have emerged. Even taxpayers with no desire at all to be
Socrates dissatisfied can see the enormous impact (though not on the
ludicrously short scale of ten to 15 years) these
investigations, driven by pure intellectual curiosity, have made by
comparing today’s technology with late Victorian.

It is essential to grasp that the unintended consequences which emerge
from pure disinterested research have arisen because they were precisely
that: the research was not being directed at all to go towards immediate
practical goals."

Hear hear! The 'impact' research makes is both a long term issue, and a holistic one: one simply cannot separate out the impact made by the research activity of mankind and parcel it out paper by paper. To try to do so is simply nonsense, especially on the ridiculously short time scale it would need to be for it to be relevant for funding purposes.

Let's hope sense wins out and the research community in philosophy and elsewhere is not forced to bow to the whims of petty short term thinking, looking only to immediate and foreseeable commercial gain.

Update: There's a good post on this at Logic Matters.

Update 2: Of course, it's not just philosophers who should be worried. The Guardian quoted some reasonably concerned physicists too - even the subjects where you'd expect it would be easier to demonstrate 'impact' still, sensibly, don't want to have their research agenda to be driven by that.