'Overreacting' managers take impact too far, debate hears
The overreaction of university managers to the impact agenda is narrowing the kinds of research scholars feel able to carry out, academics have warned.
James Ladyman, professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol, noted funders' insistence that not every academic was obliged to produce impact. But, in a debate on impact hosted by Times Higher Education and Globe Education on 19 April, he said this had not prevented university managers from overreacting and creating "an incentive structure and environment in which an ordinary academic who works on a relatively obscure area of research feels that what they are doing isn't valued".
"When people are presented with very clear incentives they often over-respond to them, especially universities and academics who, on the whole, are rather craven when it comes to jumping through hoops to get a bit of government money," he said at the event, held at Shakespeare's Globe in London.
Departments must include one impact case study for every 10 academics submitted to the 2014 research excellence framework, which will inform the allocation of quality-related research funding beyond 2015.
Ann Thompson, professor of English at King's College London, said managers' injunction to academics to pursue "the kind of research that brings in money" meant "you can't let your best staff go off and do what they want" because they might not generate enough case studies.
Michael Dobson, director of the University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute, expressed concern that the REF encouraged "the kind of research that happens quite quickly, over the kind of work people used to dedicate their lives to".
Don Braben, honorary professor of earth sciences at University College London, said academics were being discouraged from addressing "really profound subjects" such as consciousness or the origins of life because they could not guarantee they would make progress.
But David Sweeney, director of research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that the primary aim of the impact agenda was not to change academic behaviour but to better capture the full value of what academics already did. This would allow Hefce to make a more compelling case to the government for increased research funding.
"We need a broader set of justifications for what we do, some of which has to be based on the contribution research makes to society," he said.
Mr Sweeney also called on the arts and humanities to make their own case, rather than riding on the coat-tails of "a very powerful science case". He acknowledged that issues remained with impact assessment. "But we should discuss the risks and challenges and amend what we do as we go along," he said.
• Original print headline: Show 'em a hoop and they'll jump