Assessing the value of research

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.

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6 Comments on “Assessing the value of research”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    On funny thing about art-humanities research is what good value it is: if we assume part of the role of university research is to brand Ireland as a learning culture with leading universities; euro for prestige, nothing beat the syntax of Wordsworth.

  2. Aoife Citizen Says:

    On another, similar, point, for me the strongest, though not conclusive, arguments in favor of fees is that it monetized the arts-humanities: lots of people want to do Arts degrees, seeing it, most commonly, as a general qualification indicating an ability to think, analyse and articulate. If fees are paid these courses are quite profitable and universities compete for these students, partly by supporting Art-Humanities research. The market actually supports the syntax of Wordsworth as a research topic.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Exactly Aoife, the net transfer within the Colleges from Arts is huge. Also where the others get the shining new work and study areas, the Arts are slotted into filing cabinets.
    Mind you another side effect of Fees would be that many would not study arts at all.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      Let me emphasis that I regard it as the strongest argument for fees, not that I think we should have fees: there are good arguments each way and I can’t decide my view.

  4. Dimitri Says:

    While this lead to a very interesting post, (and in that sense was useful), her comment would not have stood if she had been more knowledgeable about what DCU actually does in terms of research.

    Even considering only one of DCU’s university-designated research centres, there are people working on cancer research (epigenetic changes in cancer initiation; that would be me, for instance), and others working on traffic modelling!

    Obviously your point remains completely valid, but I wish that, before people complain, they would actually know what they are talking about.


    • Thanks, Dimitri – and I should have known about the traffic modelling! In fairness, she wasn’t really complaining about DCU (about which she knew nothing), but the universities in general. And we have to be aware that there are a lot of people out there with such views. We have to start to persuade them…


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