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