This was the first of six seminars funded under the ESRC seminar series. The meeting was fully booked with well over 50 people attending. The aim of this first seminar was to explore the contemporary framing of how we think about the relationship between intellectual activity, academic institutions, and the public good.
Pete Wade, organiser of the day, set the scene by describing how the role of universities has developed over time. He pointed out the irony that that role of teaching has been integral to universities over centuries – but is not part of the current REF system and was not part of the old RAE! Listen to the full talk here: http://www.methods.manchester.ac.uk/video/impact1/impact1intro/
Lucy Suchman, University of Lancaster,reflected on her long experience working with the private sector at Xerox Park, California. She considered the unique role of the anthropologist in the production of new technologies and innovation and the way in which US anthropologists have worked to make themselves relevant to the private sector. Anthropologists can make sense of the cultural in a way that is not available to other disciplines and can transform the mundane and banal to something interesting and exotic.
Lucy’s view on working with the private sector raised some very interesting questions and answers with respect to ownership, charging and patenting. The fact that research students at Xerox Park had primary accountability to their academic supervisor was very important and helped in arguments to ensure that Phd dissemination remained in the public domain. Listen to the full talk here: http://www.methods.manchester.ac.uk/video/impact1/impact2consuminganthropology/
Mike Savage’s talk on the impact of social science in the UK helped to uncover some of the ways in which social research methods have an agency of their own. I’ve pulled out just a few points here to give a taste of the topics Mike covered. He drew on Luke’s classic work on power to suggest three ways in which social science has influenced policy. Firstly, by influencing decisions through providing research results but, secondly, by keeping things off the agenda because they cause trouble , eg Thatcher and the Black report into health inequalities. Thirdly, Mike talked about how social science seeps into social and cultural relations in ways that are not easily detected. A few examples of the seepage of social science into everyday life include the huge growth of social science since 1948, its generation of labels which are now embedded in the language, eg, globalization, affluence, post-industrialisation, and the development of the national sample survey and the qualitative interview.
Mike problematised the development of the interview which he saw as emerging from a contestation between social workers and academics and an alliance with literary tradition, The interview was readable, but at that point men were not seen as appropriate interviewers.
Mike talked in more detail about the huge growth in social scientists since 1948 and, alongside this, the growth in funding for social science research. He concluded that the ‘social science device’ has had a massive impact, in a contested process with winners and losers. However, the current impact agenda requires us to reflect on the emerging confidence of natural scientists. Mike’s new book, Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940 has a deeper discussion of these ideas and the full talk is available here: http://www.methods.manchester.ac.uk/video/impact1/impact3postwar/.
Helga Nowotny, President of the European Research Council, considered the vulnerability and sustainability of ‘impact’ seen from the perspective of the European Research Council. Helga gave a historical perspective, drawing on Germany, the UK and US, to explain the differences in how the university systems have developed over time. She then went on to consider the consequences for research funding and the criteria used to assess research and its impact.
Helga raised the importance of basic research and the question of what should be considered as basic research. Linking back to Pete’s earlier point, she argued that unless you fund basic research in universities you will not get the outflow of well educated graduate and post-graduate students that are needed by the economy.
The European Research Council, in a radical development, only focusses on scientific excellence, and has no requirements for impact. The ERC has agreed to eliminate terms like ‘deliverables’, or ‘useful’ because you cannot predict this with basic research. Elsewhere, however, the debate has been closed on basic research, and has moved to the simplistic command ‘show me the evidence’. ERC grants are very competitive and greatly prized by universities. Because of this universities are now competing to obtain/retain ERC-grant holders, who are free to decide where they hold their grants.
Asked why grant applications could only be submitted in English, Helga explained that, in the first funding round, it was agreed applications that were not in English and would be translated. In year one, there were about 9,000 applications and only four not in English. Now, all applications are in English and this has been accepted. There are no preconditions on what ERC will fund and it has 25 different panels to cope with this.
Marilyn Strathern, formerly professor of Anthropology at Manchester and Cambridge, described the research proposal as a promissory note. She saw hope and disappointment as two sides of the same promissory coin. She suggested that people have to hype up claims to be visible and being able to anticipate is what constitutes a successful promise. She recalled a letter from the Chair of AHRC saying that basic research with no immediate impact would still be funded, but then, for the rest of the letter, talking about the impact statement required in all research applications by all RCs. In similar vein to Helga, Marilyn argued that the deviousness of appeals to impact is in the requirement to pre-specify the outcomes.
Penny Harvey’s rounding-up comments brought out a lot of the key point made during the day and also provided a good starting point for the final discussion. Penny suggested that to make your case for impact you have to narrate it, but it must also be backed by fully authenticated evidence. We need to consider which devices are effective and which less effective? How do they resonate with our own research? All devices, eg interviews, surveys, maps, have different promises and have the capacity to disappoint.
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