Excellence, Impact, and All That Jazz

April 29, 2009

Like several hundred others, I received an email last week from STFC explaining that from now on my grant proposals have to include an “impact plan”, i.e. we have to impress with our impact on the economy. (Read about it here.)  Along with the renewed gloom and doom about STFC finances, people seem to be seeing this as another sign that the barbarians are at the gates. I don’t see it that way; but there is cause for concern. Lets take this in three steps : why we should whinge, why we should help, and why we should be worried.

Why we should whinge : For as long as I can remember, British Industry has been (on average) second rate, and British Science has been (on average) world class, and often world beating. Whats more, the qualities that characterise our academic sector are just those you want in industry – we are competitive, ambitious, innovative, and we work hard. However, over the same period of history, Government has consistently concluded that we are the problem – the economy is stodgy because academic science is too pure, and this must change. Wuh ? Why are they wasting time leaning on us when the problem is elsewhere ?  It seems perverse. Whip the guys who are good at their jobs ????

Why we should help : Well, ok, the Government only has so many levers, so of course they are going to lean on us. And clearly the combined academic-industrial complex is not as porous as in the US; there is a problem somewhere. Furthermore, why should Government spend all that money on science unless it helps the economy ? If we make cultural “good of mankind” kind of arguments, we can expect the same budget as the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Of course we know that in much of science our economic impact is long-delayed and indirect, and we hope Government somehow takes this into account – but how do you do that ? You can’t blame them for wanting to see some evidence. If you read the Excellence with Impact report, this is mostly what its about : collecting evidence.  Likewise the new additions to grant proposals. This isn’t really about university scientists proving their impact. Its about Research Councils demonstrating to the Treasury that the money they have been given has made a difference. So we need to help our Research Council colleagues in that game. Sorry, transparency exercise.  Note that there is now a consultation on RCUK’s Knowledge Transfer schemes – see here and here.

Why we should worry : The depressing thing about the Excellence with Impact report is not some kind of brute message about only funding applied research : its that astronomy and particle physics have made little impact on the impact agenda. For goodness sake, there is a half-page splash about the Centre for Surrealism which has “generated economic impact of at least 1M” and has “restored the credibility of surrealism research”. There are boxes on PPARC detectors for medical imaging, and the careers of PPARC students, but somehow they are worded in a damp squib kind of way. Where is “World Wide Web utterly transformed our society” ???!!!!??? I just have the horrible feeling we simply lost a classic inter-departmental battle.

We need to score some Treasury goals. And we need a bold simple ticket. Complex programmes don’t sell. You need 100M size baubles you can sell over a cup of coffee – the e-Science programme, joining ESO, etc. I guess at the last CSR, STFC’s ticket was “Space ! The next frontier” which is why we have MoonLite and the RAL ESA Space Centre. They should at least be given credit for trying. Of course you have to watch the pea under the cups when you play that game…

Anyway. When faced with gloopy stuff about “impact” and “space” its maybe a mistake to back away with pegs on our noses; we should read the game and play with gusto. Its not too late to win.