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Unsound Science
December 2009

 
Sputnik: Did Soviet scientists assess its "economic and social impact"? 

In 1957, the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik gave the Western world a shock. I was a boy at the time, and though a family friend assured me, "We're still the greatest country in the world", I realised Britain could not compete. But are we even trying to compete with the big boys? Government determination to water down cutting-edge research has now emerged as a dark partner to the bright idea of funding university departments based on their research profile.

The bright idea started in the 1980s when the government introduced its Research Assessment Exercise, where competent members of the academic community would assess each department in each university. Now our political masters are replacing it with the Research Excellence Framework (REF) — a mushy moniker if ever there was one — which boasts: "We will be able to use the REF to encourage desirable behaviours...of individual researchers within a submitted unit." Their idea is to allocate a quarter of future research funding according to "economic and social impact".

This proposed change, which treats creative people as apparatchiks and apparatchiks as creative people, has led to an outcry. A petition from the University and College Union says: "It is counterproductive to make funding for the best research conditional on its perceived economic and social benefits." Strong word — counterproductive — but as they go on to say: "If implemented, these proposals risk undermining support for basic research...and may well lead to an academic brain drain to countries such as the United States that continue to value fundamental research." 

Dead right. I worked in America for 30 years because of its positive attitude to creative research, and only yesterday received a new solicitation from the National Science Foundation called Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation — a "bold five-year initiative to create revolutionary science and engineering research outcomes made possible by innovations and advances in computational thinking". This is typical of the NSF, which supports researchers directly, rather than through a massive government plan to fund universities as a whole. 

This country, by contrast, has got its knickers in a twist. But there's a solution. Abandon the effort to manage universities centrally and instead support research on the basis of peer reviews as in the US. This will avoid having managers in universities looking over everyone's shoulder — there's little they can do in any case, apart from providing time and space for creative work. Research support will come automatically from the grants that individual research workers funnel through the universities. Otherwise we're heading for a central planning nightmare.

No bureaucrat should be assessing "economic and social impact", and as a recent petition to Number 10 puts it, "Academic excellence is the best predictor of impact in the longer term...and evaluations based on short-term impact will lead to less impact in the long-term."

Indeed! And while the Russians did not put up Sputnik on the basis of its economic and social impact, its effect was to inspire a vast programme of micro-electronics research, particularly in America, which has had more social and economic impact than any bureaucrat could ever have imagined.

 
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Alexandre Borovik
November 27th, 2009
9:11 AM
I suggest a simple experiment: type "Mark Ronan" into a Google search -- you will see that the two highest ranking hits refer to a mathematician Mark Ronan, the author of the article. This is a general rule for universities around the country (or at least for mathematics departments) -- people working there are, in most cases, Google's first line hits.(There is, of course, a small number of exceptions when my colleagues happen to be namesakes of Disney characters.) This is an easy proof that British science has the real international standing, and a direct result of research funding policies of previous decades. What has happened is that level of British science has overgrown the level of governmental policymaking in the area of science. A review of the science policy is needed, but the current round has started from a wrong place.

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