Academic freedom under threat as funding structure changes

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Over 100 Oxford academics are protesting against proposals by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to change the funding structure of research.

The academics have added their names to a 4042 strong petition against the proposals currently under consideration, joining the likes of Richard Dawkins and 6 Nobel laureates.

The most controversial REF proposal is that 25% of the marks on which funding is based come from the ‘impact’ of the research – how it will effect economic, social, cultural or quality of life well-being of this country. Members of the UCU (University and Colleges Union), who drew up the petition, argue that making research conditional on perceived economic and social benefits is “counterproductive.”

They point out, “It is often difficult to predict which research will create the greatest practical impact. History shows us that in many instances it is curiosity-driven research that has led to major scientific and cultural advances. If implemented, these proposals risk undermining support for basic research across all disciplines and may well lead to an academic brain drain to countries such as the United States that continue to value fundamental research.”

Many Oxford academics have added their voices to the debate. Todd Huffman, Physics Lecturer and Senior Physics Fellow at LMH, explains that it can be impossible to gauge the true strength of impact before research takes place. “What is the economic impact of the unknown? Good research is, fundamentally, the exploration of the unknown and following that where it may take you. Since it is unknown you cannot make any sort of ‘impact statement’ which is anything more than a waste of time for all concerned.”

Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, the Chair of the Oxford Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, agrees that the idea of ‘impact’ is somewhat flawed – “Humanities research has an impact in the long term – maybe 20 or 30 years later in some cases. The REF does not deal with such a long time-frame. In addition, a lot of research we do is into non-British cultures. This adds both to our understanding of those cultures and of those cultures’ understanding of themselves. But the REF’s impact factors take no account of impact abroad.”

Drew Foxall of Christ Church worries that the proposals would encourage the wrong sort of research. “There’s a danger, I think, if these proposals go through that we’ll see an increased emphasis on impacts that may be more about the promotion of the ‘public academic’ and getting his/her message ‘out there’, rather than the promotion of processes for socially just change. The two don’t always sit happily together.” Foxall also states “contact with national international policy bodies will likely be construed as far better than local, grassroots, activism-based work”, which may well lead to far less radical change.”

There are also problems with the clarity of the proposals. For example, Watanabe-O’Kelly claims that although “research in the Humanities has a huge impact, the proposals as to how to measure it are very, very vague”.
The University was unable to comment on the matter, as it is still in the consultation phase.

 

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