03 April 2008


By Gordon Finlayson

Thanks Andrew for setting up this blog. It is vital that we raise these issues, and we need a place where we can do this.

A word on economic impact.

One thing that we should bear in mind is that even if the only value of Higher education were its economic impact (which is untrue, but this is another matter) there is a great deal that can be said about the economic value of teaching and research in the Humanities, that is not currently being said.

It seems obvious from documents such as the White Paper, and the Science and Innovation Investment Framework, and I have heard this confirmed by various moles with their ears close to Government, that there is a belief that the Universities are not paying their way, that the Government has not seen a return on its investment in Universities, that they are funding too much research that is without economic value. Hence the move to include "stakeholders" (i.e. Government and business people) on the Research Councils to encourage funding of projects with high economic impact.

But what is the real economic impact of the output of research intensive universities in the Arts and Humanities? And how would one measure this? Unless the government has a pretty firm idea of what the economic impact is already, and has been for the last ten years or so, presumably it cannot know if its new policy is having the desired effect.

I have not seen any plausible figures on this. What is the combined economic value of the skills, acquired by Arts and Humanities graduates and post-graduates in the course of their higher education, over a life time of work, at research intensive Universities? I would like to know what the government figures are, and how they arrive at their calculations.

The AHRC, which is, of course, anxious to show the Government that it is delivering economic impact, gives the numbers of Ph.D students flowing into the labour market, in its 2008 Delivery Plan, mentions a PricewaterhouseCooper audit (Case study on economic impact of research grant Polynesian Visual Arts: meanings and histories in Pacific and European cultural contexts. PricewaterhouseCoopers 2006), and cites another highly exceptional case study:

"Economic Impact Case Study - AHRC Research on recycled glass for structural and aesthetic applications led to a new product, TTURA that is used in public art works and is sold to the construction industry for worktops and flooring. According to PwC, the economic impact of this research includes a projected Gross Value Added from sales of TTURA in the range of £2.4m to £3.2m over 25 years and projected licensing income from intellectual property ranging from £530k to £930k over 25 years."

(Yes this is the AHRC! And it wants the exception to become the rule.)

One might reasonably infer from this that the Government is in fact pressurising the Research Councils to increase funding to research projects with a likely demonstrable economic benefit, because among other things the Government and the AHRC are part of a target culture, and for various reasons need to be able to show that they have increased (sorry, delivered a step change in) economic impact. But 1. their measures of economic impact are extremely crude, and 2. anyway increasing demonstrable (and auditable) economic impact is not the same thing as increasing economic impact. A policy that results in an increase in the former might lead to a decline in the latter.

So among the questions we should ask are these:

Is government policy going to make studying arts and humanities disciplines more attractive to the best foreign post-graduate students, than it currently is? If it has the opposite effect, what will be the economic impact on Universities?

Will one of the effects of ring-fencing large sums of money for Government strategic research priorities end up funneling academics and (Research-themed Universities) towards these lucrative areas?

Will that, in turn, lead to a decline in quality of research (and research led teaching) in other areas? What will the economic effect of that be?

What will the effects of this be on the disciplines of the Humanities?

Interdisciplinarity versus Lone Scholar Research

I'm not against interdisciplinary research where it can be done, and where there is reason to think it might be fruitful. But one hears all the time now (from government and other sages), that the days of lone scholars is over and that all the most important research is done by crews of interdisciplinary researchers. One reason that lone scholar research might be in decline (if it is) is that the effect of government policy is to make it more difficult. And one reason that much important research in the arts and humanities is being done by large crews of interdisciplinary researchers (if it is) is that the government has put in place large financial incentives, which have of course generated interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects. What the long to medium term effects of these incentives are going to be, is a good question. They will certainly change behaviour of academics. Economists know that financial incentives generate rent-seeking activity. Whether this is leading the research agenda in the right direction, it is too early to tell. No congratulations are in order yet. Let us wait and have a look at the results (deliveries) of these projects in 10 years time.

Still no amount of hand waving towards Government funded interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects will persuade me that the model of the lone scholar, driven by intellectual curiosity, is not an entirely appropriate and fruitful one for most humanities disciplines. Come to that, all the best interdisciplinary research I have read in the last ten years - whether by Habermas, Thomas Franck, or T. J. Clark - has been by, guess what, lone scholars. And so far as I can see, in most if not all Humanities disciplines, the best Universities continue to publish high quality single authored monographs. Are they living in the past, one wonders?


Philip Moriarty said...


As a physicist, I found your post extremely interesting. It is intriguing just how many parallels your comments highlight between research in the humanities and in the physical sciences! I've commented at length elsewhere on the lack of critical thinking at the heart of RCUK's economic impact agenda so I won't rehearse those arguments in detail here.

Your comments on the government's desire to get more "return on its investment" are spot on and chime with statements I've heard from a number of sources. What I haven't seen, however, is any type of analysis from EPSRC of to what extent the drive for short term economic return affects innovation. Jennifer Washburn makes some very interesting points in an online interview regarding the fallacies which led to Congress legislating for stronger academia-industry links in the US (the Bayh-Dole act, 1980). The following quote is rather intriguing:

In a survey published in 2002 by Wesley Cohen and Richard Nelson, industry technology professionals were asked what are the most important mechanisms by which you get information from academia? To an overwhelming extent, industry said that open channels like publication and consulting were the most important channels.

Your comment re. multidisciplinary teams is also very important. Many of the key advances in technology and science over the past fifty years have arisen not from huge multidisciplinary teams but from groups of three or four researchers. Indeed, in some cases, "critical mass" is simply a single researcher with the appropriate vision and drive. Conversely, it is not so unusual for large teams to become complacent.


Alexandre Borovik said...

Yesterday I was filling a peer review form for an EPSRC grant application in pure mathematics, and had to access the economic impact of the proposal. What could I say? The only honest (and correct) answer was that we have to wait a couple of centuries before jumping to any conclusion.

Indeed, let us have a look at one of many examples from the history of mathematics: Fermat's Little Theorem (not to be confused with Fermat's Last Theorem), proved in 1640, waited for a century to be generalised by Euler, and another 250 years to find practical applications. But these practical applications include such stuff as cryptographic security of the entire financial system of the world.

However, on a short time scale, pure mathematics is utterly useless. But you cannot write that on a peer review form.