Friday, November 06, 2009

RAE2008 Panel in Philosophy on "impact"

Published in the Times Higher Education here:

We, the undersigned members of the RAE2008 Philosophy Sub-Panel, wish to register our deep concerns about certain aspects of the research excellence framework Consultation Document which we will be bringing to the attention of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

One concern relates to the use of impact as a measure of research quality in an area such as philosophy, which is largely (though not wholly) theoretical. We are not opposing the idea of measuring or rewarding impact grounded in excellent research; but we do not accept that the most useful role, intellectually or economically, for impact factors to play is in assessing research quality. If research-driven impact is tightly correlated with research quality then there is no need to add it to the REF methodology; it is superfluous. But in fact we see no reason at all to suppose that impact, on a 10 to 15-year scale, is positively correlated across the range of philosophical sub-areas with research quality. Hence adding impact assessment to REF profiles as a measure of research quality is likely to do positive harm and could lead to seriously distorted assessments of such quality.

Ours is largely a discipline where research aims are pursued for their intrinsic worth. We know that the Government accepts the need for public funding of pure, curiosity-driven research. Those taxpayers who are not happy maintaining the tradition of such research, which goes back all the way to the founding of universities in Europe, can easily be shown the social and economic benefits which have arisen from theoretical research, often in ways which were utterly unpredictable.

Few disciplines, indeed, can claim to have had as much impact, intellectual, cultural and economic, as philosophy has had in its 2,500 year history. It simply does not make sense to judge our discipline in timescales of 10 to 15 years. The emergence of the general programmable computer occurred over sixty years after the investigations of the philosopher Frege into logic and artificial languages, a path-breaking intellectual breakthrough kick-starting a project which laid the intellectual foundations for computer software. And it was almost as long a gap before the pure research into black body radiation by Einstein, Planck and others led to the micro-electronic technology which underwrites the hardware end of modern IT.

It is a fundamental mistake to think that politicians, business leaders or civil servants can devise tests that will spot which curiosity-driven research is likely to bear practical fruit, as big a mistake today as it would have been in Frege or Einstein’s day. In our view, once the government has decided how much pure research should be funded directly from the public purse, it should leave it to academics to decide, on the basis of research quality alone, the relative merits of units of submission. Accordingly, we believe that Hefce should give panels, certainly in the more theoretical subjects, the flexibility to decide how much role impact plays in signalling where the best research is taking place.

We also have concerns about the proposal to merge the philosophy panel with theology. Certainly much good work takes place in philosophy of religion. There is also a lot of top-quality philosophical research in philosophy of physics, economics, politics, mathematics, linguistics, psychology, computer science, medicine and other subjects, and in many of these areas there were considerably more outputs in 2008 than were distinctively relevant to theology. Philosophy is thus an intellectually broad discipline, and it could be damaged if it were to be tied too closely to any other particular discipline; for in each such case only a minority of practitioners would be engaged with it. We appreciate Hefce’s desire to reduce the number of panels, but think that the extreme breadth and inter-disciplinarity of philosophy provides a strong reason not to bind it to any one of its many associated disciplines. Philosophy surely has at least as strong a case for its own panel as area studies, smaller in terms of staff fte last time round and one which can hardly claim to have the intellectual lineage of philosophy.

It is perhaps not widely enough appreciated how very highly UK philosophy is valued throughout the world. We think the current proposals are likely to damage philosophy, and its worldwide reputation, and urge Hefce to reconsider.

Alexander Bird (University of Bristol)
Ruth Chadwick (Cardiff University);
Roger Crisp (University of Oxford);
Jonathan Dancy (University of Reading);
Antony Duff (University of Stirling)
Katherine Hawley (University of St Andrews)
Joanna Hodge (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Christopher Hookway (University of Sheffield);
Stephen Houlgate (University of Warwick)
Peter Lamarque (University of York);
Robin LePoidevin (University of Leeds);
E. J. Lowe (University of Durham)
Michael Martin (University College London);
Suzanne Stern-Gillet (University of Bolton)
Alan Weir (University of Glasgow)

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