Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘research’

Impact à la canadienne

I’ve mocked the sometimes risible implications of the British obsession with tying academic research one-for-one with “impact” on industry or society. It’s not absurd to want to ask the question, I would argue, but expecting to be able to get answers about impact on the fine grain that is needed for steering funding decisions leads, I suggest, is a fool’s errand. There is also a (not very) hidden political agenda behind impact: Research that elucidates the origin of the Himalayas or the inner workings of modern religious movements, let us say, has no impact unless the BBC makes a documentary about it. Research that helps one bank increase its market share over another bank by better confusing its customers is rewarded for its impact, because definable (and potentially grateful) people have made money from it.

Nonetheless, the British establishment is not so crass as to suppose that helping to make money is the only possible utility of research. The UK research councils are at pains to point to the multiple “pathways to impact”, through changing public understanding, government policy, health benefits, education. For some purposes, even something as useless as influencing the progress of science can be counted as impact, though it fail to swell the bank account of even the smallest party donor.

To see the full unfolding of impact’s crassness potential, we need to look to Canada. John MacDougal, director of Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), announced his agency’s new focus on impact by saying,

Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.

No hedging there about social impact, contributing to public understanding, government policy, etc. Science minister Gary Goodyear  said that

We want business-driven, industry-relevant research and development.

This is not quite as outrageous as astronomer Phil Plait makes it seem, when he contends that “the Canadian government and the NRC have literally sold out science”. And he goes on to say that NRC “will only perform research that has ‘social or economic gain’.” An article quotes Goodyear saying

the government isn’t abandoning basic science, just shifting its focus to commercializing discoveries. “The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” he said. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain.”

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Total Impact: Wakefield edition

So it seems Andrew Wakefield is back in the news. As Phil Plait has described well, the man who has done more to undermine public health than any physician since Martini and Rodenwaldt has been given space in The Independent to accuse the British government of inadequate measles prevention. Because his rantings scared lots of parents off the MMR vaccine, and the NHS didn’t want to provide separate measles vaccines instead.

The pathological self-promoters you will have with you always, so there’s no real surprise there. But it got me to thinking about his future in British medical research. Because some denizens of less enlightened lands may not know how IMPACTFUL British research has become: The prime directive for state-sponsored research under the current government (though I think it started already under Labour) is “impact”, defined as

an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia

because academia is just a province of Faerie, not an actual part of the society or economy. In addition to impact being a crucial part of every grant proposal, and the postmortem on every grant after it’s completed, this definition will guide 20% of the scoring on the Research Excellence Framework (REF) just now getting underway, replacing the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) last conducted six years ago, because now instead of research being assessed, we agree that it’s all excellent but needs to be frameworked, or something.

So anyway, it’s noteworthy that BENEFIT is only one acceptable form of impact. Any change or effect gets you points for impact, rather in the way the bibliometric citation counting that prevails in many academic fields doesn’t distinguish between citations for your paper providing key insights that inspired follow-on research, and citations that point out yet another bone-headed mistake in the paper that has been confusing researchers and holding back the progress of the field.

What’s more, it’s not clear how anyone would evaluate whether those who benefit from the research are themselves providing a net benefit or harm to society. (Sorry, I mean, to the taxpayer. There’s no such thing as society.) Presumably no one will provide a support letter from bioterrorists, explaining how their headline-generating work would have been impossible without the groundbreaking research of Professor X, but someone like David Li could show evidence that his work formed the industry-wide basis for the multi-billion pound market in mortgage backed securities which (you may have heard) helped to crash the world economy. The fact that he might himself agree that his formula never should have been applied, that the bankers “misinterpreted and misused it“, and that “Very few people understand the essence of the model“, doesn’t detract from the benefit that derived to some people, at least in the short term, and even the worst recession in 75 years certainly counts as a “change in the economy”, demonstrating the IMPACT of the research.

With that in mind, I reveal the hitherto secret Wakefield Impact Case Study, titled “Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine characterisation of risk factors for Autism and Vaccination Policy”. We are confident that the massively impactful Wakefield will quickly be hired by a major research institution and showered with research grants. (more…)

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