4 Responses to Hype, Impact and Direct Action

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    I think you are rather missing the essence of the point, which is rather elegantly illustrated by this example of flat-screen TVs. The issue is surely that the greatest true impact of any piece of research is likely to be entirely unpredictable: in this case, the unexpected consequence that flat screens encourage greater power consumption rather than less. There is therefore a signal-to-noise issue that if impact statements are taken at face value then, even if they are not amplified by hype, science will end up being driven by the noise of expected consequences, which for truly innovative research may well be drowned out by the signal of the unexpected.

    Indeed, surely we should be giving preference to research that is sufficiently innovative that there is an expectation that the unexpected consequences will be far more significant than the expected ones, which makes reliance on the predictable consequences as a guide to selecting research areas even more damaging to the future of true innovation.

  2. Hi Athene. You may know there was a Science Question Time devoted to impact at Imperial this week, with a podcast and summary available via CASE’s website. The panel were pretty positive about the shift to impact, if only to enable UK scientists to justify our worth to HMT.

    A useful analogy mentioned by one of the panel members was the introduction of league tables in schools. Inherently a sensible thing, but one which encourages teachers to focus on pupils exam strategies rather than teaching per se. Similarly, I fear that the introduction of impact by HEFCE and RCUK may have similar unintended consequences. Well meaning, but an unheaval that runs the risk of suppressing research fields that at face value have little economic or societal benefit, yet might be central to a future not-yet-predictable advance?

    HMT, on the basis of the strong track record of UK science, must have been sufficiently convinced of our collective merits to not cut the science budget (admittedly flat cash with severely reduced capital) last autumn. This track record predates impact in applications. Since only the best possible research stands a chance of succeeding in RCUK applications, the decider between two equally strong proposals may be one whose (future) pathways to impact statement overstates the likely benefit.

    Finally, there is no talk of impact in German grant applications at present, so their funding agencies must still be comfortable with what their scientists produce without trying to measure it, perhaps because German industry expends a much higher fraction of its GDP on R&D than the UK? If UK plc wants more bang for its science buck, wouldn’t it be better to invest more heavily in, say, the Technology Strategy Board instead of adding additional hurdles to university research?

  3. Michael, no I’m not missing the point. I would entirely concur that the unexpected is what makes research so interesting, and my post said nothing to the contrary. Research that only leads to foregone conclusions is hardly adventurous or going to advance the field, although sometimes it is necessary for corroboration (and sometimes, regrettably, it is the stuff that seems more likely to be funded). That was not where the emphasis of the original Blamire piece lay. On the contrary, it appeared to mix up different ideas. Firstly, the implication was almost that the research might have been better left undone because it led to an outcome of more energy being used – which I felt was something implicitly and unreasonably laid at the scientists’ door. Secondly, that somehow the scientists were being used as a ‘cloak’ as he put it, for the Government to do nothing much and, again by implication, that we were therefore complicit by writing impact statements. That is where the direct action comes in as a logical if improbable alternative course of action for scientists to take. Scientists are citizens as well as researchers, and we should take our responsibilities in the round seriously, although few would probably go as far as Hansen.

    I think it is important not to lay too much blame and stress on impact statements, not to convolute all the ills of the current funding climate and societal issues with the existence of this much maligned requirement for a 2 page document. There are many positive things scientists can do. One of which is to think about plausible outcomes of our research. Getting these wrong is all too likely; but failing to think if there is anything that makes the work worth doing beyond idle curiosity at the taxpayers’ expense is not something that is going to be easily swallowed by the majority of the population. Nor should we expect it to be. Even blue skies research can be thought about and justified – as I have always said there is far more to impact than simple economics.

    Paul, in my experience at BBSRC panels I don’t think it is the hype that convinces anyone about the ‘excellence’ of these statements. It is the thoughtfulness. I can’t judge other research councils and how they operate, but I have certainly heard it said by my colleagues that a good impact statement frequently ties in with a well-argued case, because the PI has sat down and thought things through in some detail. Most panel members have pretty good BS detectors in-built and can cut through the verbiage. But then, maybe I’m just an incurable optimist.

  4. I am rather surprised by the attention that impact (from an RCUK perspective) has received. An impact statement in my view allows the proposer to articulate why they want to do what they state in the proposal. It allows scientists the opportunity to present in a thoughtful manner the bigger picture of their research. I don’t buy this belief that blue sky research suffers from impact statements. If the proposer really knows why they are doing this research then the impact statement should be easy to write.

    I find much the HEFCE impact a little stranger. If the measurements of impact were purely to justify to the public why research is funded, I’d be fine with it. However, judging the current state of an institution by research that was done 15 years ago is something I just don’t understand.

    The comparison with German research I think is unaffected by all of this, although it is a related matter. Governments in the UK (of both persuasions) have shown that the University sector is something they do not understand particularly well. If they did they would not have been surprised by everyone charging £9k for undergraduate teaching; a University degree is not like a tin of baked beans. German industry can approach and collaborate with universities as and when they wish. UK industry seems to be contracting out its research to universities. The easier UK governments have made it for industry and universities to work together, the more corporate research appears to have suffered. It would be interesting if the government gave itself another metric by which to measure the performance of their industrial policy: by how many has the number of corporate research labs increased or decreased during one election cycle? Of course, there are two sides to this argument. German industry might be great, but then our universities stand up very well to theirs.

    PS Paul can I have a lift on Tuesday?