Excellence, Impact, and All That Jazz

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.

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17 Responses to Excellence, Impact, and All That Jazz

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    When it comes to completing the Impact Plan introduced by RCUK, perhaps we should all simply cut and paste the commitment made by Philip Esler, their “Knowledge Transfer Champion” and author of “Excellence with Impact,” who stated on behalf of RCUK that:

    Where applicants feel that their research is not likely to have an immediate or obvious impact, then they should state that in the application. Excellent research without obvious or immediate impact will not be disadvantaged.

    (THE, 12 February 2009.)

    Since RCUK presumably has no ambitions to fund any research that is not excellent, this commitment does rather raise the question of what purpose the Impact Statement serves if it is not to be used to discriminate between excellent proposals that have immediate impact and those that do not.

  2. Tony says:

    Hmm. So where does the jazz come in?

  3. andyxl says:

    After the surrealist cabaret

  4. Rob Ivison says:

    I presumed the idea was to ensure every research-active academic has to ask themselves at least once every 3 years whether their research could spawn something of practical interest and to harness that info to squeeze money from treasury for E-ELT and SKA (the next big ground-based projects with KE/EI potential). Even I don’t see a downside, and I’m the most pessimistic person I know!

  5. telescoper says:

    Tony,

    I was sitting in Toronto airport once and there was an announcement of a cancelled flight run by airline called Jazz. The guy sitting next to me turned to his wife and asked “Why do the call themselves Jazz?”. His wife answered “Because they make it up as they go along.”

    Peter

  6. telescoper says:

    Tony,

    I was sitting in Toronto airport once and there was an announcement of a cancelled flight run by a budget airline called Jazz. The guy sitting next to me turned to his wife and asked “Why do the call themselves Jazz?”. His wife answered “Because they make it up as they go along.”

    Peter

  7. telescoper says:

    I didn’t mean to post that twice.

  8. Ken Rice says:

    Rob,

    If your interpretation is correct then there may be nothing to worry about. What concerns me is the new “Impact plan” together with the statement from John Denham that “The (Research) Councils will be developing plans over the next few months to refocus their research programmes for 2010-11 into new priority areas”. This implies – to me – that we will be encouraged to modify our research to more obviously relate to the “new priority areas”. I may well be wrong, but at the moment am not quite as positive about this change as you seem to be (feels slightly odd to be postings this here, rather than just mentioning it to you at lunch a few minutes ago).

  9. ian smail says:

    There is of course a KE element used in AGP’s ranking of grants for their recommendation to PPAN, but it has a relatively low weight (compared to scientific excellence/international competitiveness and the oxymoronic “strategic fit”). I imagine its weighting will increase in the next round.

    My underlying worry – like Ken – is that (by definition) most KE activities are directed at goals which fall outside of STFC’s small area of science exploitation and associated technology. Hence this approach, while justified for several reasons, might have the unintended consequence of redirecting the UK’s PP&A research effort into other science areas and thus ultimately other funding sources. This is of course commensurate with the levels of FEC being awarded (i.e. significantly less than the typical research load of an academic working only in the STFC area), which already means we already ought to be going out looking for non-STFC research to fill our time (and pay our salaries).

  10. andyxl says:

    EPSRC is under much bigger pressure to increase its fraction of theme-directed research. The ex-CCLRC bit of STFC is under pressure to show that Diamond, ISIS, CLF have direct or indirect non-academic users. We cannot play either of those games and shouldn’t even try to. Our impacts are (a) people skills output (b) long term indirect impact – strategic investment as PPARC used to say – and (c) high technology pull, as demanding customers/collaborators. ELT comes in this last category. We have to help STFC formulate a sales pitch along these lines, and stop fretting about needing to show we are inventing widgets. We ain’t.

  11. John Womersley says:

    Andy, I showed a version of just such a sales pitch at the particle and nuclear physics town meetings last month:

    http://www.stfc.ac.uk/About/Struc/Dirs/SciProg.aspx

    If every student is indeed worth $2M, and we train 250 a year, there’s a $500M size impact for you.

    The slides at the end refer to the South African government’s investment in SKA, which it sees as helping to address the skills and economic development agenda for the country – a country with far fewer resources and far more serious issues than we have.

    John

  12. ian smail says:

    andy:

    i thought the problem with making the pitch you are suggesting is that STFC appear to no longer view themselves as the salespersons for selling the usefulness of the UK’s core PP&A research to the government. even without knowing about other input, their charter by itself seems to indicate they’re doing what they were expected to do – so you can’t criticise them for this.

    so we have a disconnect: we have to convince government (via RAS or IOP or the media) of our usefulness – so that hopefully they will direct some money to STFC – who may then decide to use it to pay for our research. not unsurprisingly this is widely viewed as an ineffective mechanism and so is likely to yield difficult outcomes for the community.

    in the light of that – we either have to follow the passive pressure of KE/etc and potentially disperse our key skills into other areas – or alternatively we more actively use FEC and other forms of support to focus funding on our world-leading areas. at the moment, in the absence of any strategic direction, these resources are being spread thinly to try to keep (most of) the community alive – even if that doesn’t seem feasible in even the moderate term.

    ian

  13. Ken Rice says:

    John,

    I am quite pleased to see that you are making such a case for PP&A. However, if you look at the STFC FAQ on Impact Requirements, it explicitly says that teaching undergraduates and researchers (which I took to mean PhD students or young postdocs) is not considered as impact in this context since it is a core activity of a university or institute. Personally I found this a bit disappointing. If this type of activity does have impact then – as far as I’m concerned – it should be included. If the assumption is that every applicant does this, so why bother including it also isn’t correct since not all applicants teach (or have significant contact with young researchers) and some don’t even work at universities or institutes that have any major teaching roles.

    Your comment also raises a second interesting point. If 250 PhD students are worth $500M, will 500 PhD student be worth $1000M? I don’t know the answer to this, but it is not obvious to me that we are assessing this in any way at all at the moment.

  14. Michael Merrifield says:

    Interesting slides, John. I am not sure about widely quoting a US figure, nor picking a generic “science PhD” though — too easy to argue that the UK is different or that most of that $2M accrues from “useful science” PhDs. Are we any closer to having justifiable numbers for what an STFC-trained PhD is worth to the nation?

  15. Tony says:

    Peter, after flying so many times on an airline called ‘baby’, I didn’t bat an eye flying with Jazz when I went to ADASSS last year 🙂
    The planes seemed pretty impromptu though.

  16. So long and thanks for all the fish says:

    Andy,

    I read this in the THES:

    “Only three of the seven councils – the Economic and Social Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council – gave assurances that there would be no cuts to existing grants and contracts. The Arts and Humanities Research Council said it had “no intention” of cutting existing grants and contracts, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council said it had “no plans” to do so and the Medical Research Council said it “was confident” it could honour what was in place.”

    So this leaves STFC as the odd one out. Would you consider a decision by a research council not to honour its commitments as strengthening or weakening its position in the scientific community?

  17. […] similar has been mentioned by Andy, just in reference to the UK’s main science council. To pass broader comment, I am uncertain […]

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