I was at a function recently when I was accosted by one of the other persons attending. How, she wanted to know, could I justify all that ‘useless research’ that was going on in my university? She wasn’t against research – not at all, in fact: she wanted us to find the cure for cancer, the answer to Dublin’s traffic problems, and a solution to all those under-funded pension schemes. And instead, what were we working on? Well, she had heard someone say that research was being funded by the taxpayer to analyse the ‘syntax of Wordsworth’s poetry’! I mean, can you imagine?
My first response when she paused to draw breath was that DCU was working on the three topics she mentioned (well actually, I don’t think we’re working on Dublin’s traffic, but I wasn’t going to admit that). But, I pointed out, it was important for society that there would be some researchers who were not working to a particular practical agenda, because they might well discover things that nobody had yet anticipated but which would change our lives. OK, she conceded, but Wordsworth’s syntax? I had no idea who if anyone really was working on this, but I pointed out that such research might produce valuable insights into the effectiveness of communication (well, I had to think of something quickly…).
But even if I found this conversation a little annoying, she was raising an issue with which we do need to come to grips: what is university research for? Why do we do it, and why should it be funded? And how many strings should be attached to the funding? And how do we measure whether it has all been worthwhile? A good friend of mine, a very respected academic who is one of the global leaders in his discipline, argues from time to time that the only worthwhile research is useless research; once we are subjecting it to an impact assessment, he suggests, we are cheapening it.
All of this is at the heart of the new system to be introduced in Britain for evaluating research, the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This will be used (as a successor to the Research Assessment Exercise) to evaluate a university’s research performance and determine how much general research funding it should receive. One of the key criteria to be used will be ‘impact’. This is explained as follows: ‘significant … 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.’ In other words, this will assess whether the research can satisfy my friend at the function. And this has drawn some strong criticism from the academic community, as has been reported in the most recent issue of Times Higher Education. Academics have not been persuaded that the ‘impact’ of their research is always a relevant or fair criterion, not least because it may not be known when a research project is first planned.
I have some sympathy with this resistance. And yet, as society (and other funders) are being asked to provide the resources for research, it is not unreasonable that they should ask what it is for. So maybe we should resist a little less, and just get better at explaining the purpose of research, even research that is at first sight functionally ‘useless’. We are probably no longer in an era where we can answer ‘mind your own business’ to such questions and still hope to get resources, but equally we should be able to explain convincingly that, sometimes, research is justified because it will engage an intellectual agenda and because the pursuit of such an agenda is right for a civilised society, and for a society that wants to train the best minds to do the best they can. And sometimes it is justified because it cures cancer and makes the traffic flow.