Why public engagement is not “research impact”

Measuring the impact of research, then. Seems a noble enterprise, at first glance. Nobody likes the idea of taxpayer-funded navel-gazing, so we obviously need to show that what we’re doing is useful, or informative, or at least interesting to a lot of people who aren’t us.

The REF won’t help to do any of that, of course. On current showing, it will probably just expend a titanic level of administrative energy pretending to turn subjective judgments into numbers. The numbers will not particularly represent anything, but will at least be reassuringly numerical. They will therefore be accepted as a substitute for actual insight — or, indeed, a means of defeating it.

On the general mess, I’ve got nothing to say that hasn’t been said better by Stefan Collini, James Ladyman, Ross McKibbin, Iain Pears and others. (One of the problems of voicing concerns as an academic is that the profession necessarily encourages keeping your damned mouth shut if you’ve got nothing original to say. Opponents can thus represent as an Awkward-Squad minority those who are in fact merely the most articulate exponents of a strong consensus. For the record, I don’t believe I know anyone in the academic humanities who seriously doubts that the “impact” principle is wildly incoherent and inherently corrosive. But you try writing to HEFCE or the Times Higher saying “I agree with Ladyman, and I’ve got more sensible hair than he has”, and see where that gets you.)

One point which I don’t think has been covered elsewhere, however, is this: The “research impact” agenda is pre-programmed to miss most of the useful work which humanities academics do for public audiences. Continue reading

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“…because none of that is even accurate.”

I’m currently setting up a student writing project (more on this soon, I hope). It’s inspired, in part, by frustration at the sheer badness of much of the information that floats around on the public web. I’m sure you know from personal frustration what I’m talking about.

The stone-cold assertion that the Japanese city of Kokura was hit by an atomic bomb, for instance, is one I first spotted a year ago (on a different site: clearly it’s a factoid with legs).  This was just about trumped, however, by a Yahoo answers page on the old legend of Charles Darwin’s missing knighthood: the author of the most sensible explanation is deemed, for his pains, to be “on drugs or something.”

A bit of digging, though, reavealed that taking the question seriously gives us a useful window into debates on the status of nineteenth-century science. Last week I blogged the results at Whewell’s Ghost, under the title “What more do you want? A knighthood?

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Greetings. I appear to have started an online journal. Wonder how long that’s going to last…

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