The Humanities in an Age of Impact

Wednesday 28th October, 2015

Kelli Barr and Samantha Langsdale

Special Section on the Future of Research Governance

How do the humanities stand today? Even a brief survey of recent news regarding the changing landscape of the humanities reveals a noticeable “crisis motif”. The humanities are clearly on the defensive against closures and budget cuts made in the name of “impact.” Skeptical pronouncements, such as those from the Japanese education minister, reveal growing doubts about the relevance of the humanities, and a mounting worry that dominant discourses of impact are disconnected from humanistic values.

Closures like those being made across the UK and here in the US surely demand an immediate and thoughtful response. And indeed, many academics are taking exercises like the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) to task for its expense, redundancy, unintended steering effects, and corruption of collegiality. Yet, James Wilsdon’s defense of the REF on economic grounds makes an important point. The argument recalls Churchill’s quip about democracy – that it’s the worst form of government, except for all the others.

We are confronted with two rising tides. On the one hand is an existential concern for the humanities. On the other is concern for public accountability, that public monies should only be spent where they will yield clear societal benefits. How, then, can public colleges and universities navigate these waves? How is it that we can account for the broader value of the humanities?

The Rise of Impact Agendas

Neoliberal policy trends in higher education are clearly global in reach, but they take the most definite institutional shape in the UK. Since 1986, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has evaluated the teaching and research quality of all publicly funded colleges and universities in five-year cycles. The REF (formerly the Research Assessment Exercise) has considerable teeth. Outcomes of the assessment are tied to block grants, one of the main streams of funding sustaining these institutions.

Of the REF’s three dimensions of research quality assessment – outputs, impacts, and the institution’s research environment – impact has garnered the most controversy. Departments and programs at each of the 154 public colleges and universities submit narrative case studies showing links between their research and its broader significance for non-academic audiences. While ‘impact’ is recognized to cover a wide range of activities and outcomes, HEFCE has made it clear that they are interested specifically in research outcomes that bridge the proverbial ivory wall. Academics are being called to show the value of their work beyond how it perpetuates the research system itself.

In fact, accounting for impact is also built into the other major funding source for UK colleges and universities. Agencies resembling the US’s National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health grant funding to individual research projects. Applicants must submit both a description of the project’s intellectual merit and a Pathways to Impact statement describing how they plan to integrate broader impacts into their research activities. Just what impacts might be realized, and how, are defined by the researchers. A Pathways statement is intended only to demonstrate that thinking about the broader benefits of a project are integrated into its design and execution.

At every stage of the research process, then, UK academics are subject to the Impact Agenda. And we need not wait for something like the REF to wash up on these shores in order to experience accountability regimes. As in the UK, the impact agendas cropping up in the US, such as Broader Impacts at NSF, have their roots in a research policy crisis that has been building for over half a century.

The Roots of our Research Policy Crisis

Generally speaking, the impact agenda raises a basic question: what good is the pursuit of knowledge? The question is a merely personal one when the pursuer of knowledge is self-supporting. But the question becomes social when a benefactor is involved: will I see a return on my investment? It turns political when public funds are at stake: does this serve the common good? And it becomes existential when research can put an end to civilization, as became the case with atomic weaponry at the end of WWII.

Coincidently it is in 1945 that we find the first systematic apology for research – one that gave a deceptively powerful answer to the question of impact. In Science – the Endless Frontier Vannevar Bush made the case for institutionalizing the public funding of research. Scientific progress, he argued, is fundamental to social progress. “Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends.” Yet without basic research, the reservoir of knowledge necessary for improvements in health, security, education, and communication would dry up. “Statistically it is certain that important and highly useful discoveries will result from some fraction of the undertakings in basic science; but the results of any one particular investigation cannot be predicted with accuracy.”

The argument reads like a series of Zen koans. Research is impractically practical. Knowledge pursued for its intrinsic value yields practical results. Impacts are never intended; but they always come, just as the cardinal appears, unbidden, after each winter. Science can predict everything except its own results. It is the eye that sees all but itself.

This is the hydraulic answer to the question of impact: knowledge flows from the university down a concentration gradient to society. And this serendipity model has served as our default ‘contract’ between science and society – our philosophy of impact. Since outputs automatically (though unpredictably) yield impacts, funding basic research is a calculated investment in serendipity. Its Zen-like quality has resisted analysis: just as the plant ‘knows’ how to blossom and we ‘know’ how to breathe, this kind of knowing cannot be set down in propositions. The knowing is in the doing. We know how research impacts society, because we have a track record that it does.

Toward a Philosophy of Impact

From a philosophical point of view it’s an intriguing answer. But from the point of view of public accountability it’s pretty lousy. Strip away its mantra-like qualities and the “contract” becomes “trust us.” That’s why, in a post-Cold War age of public sector austerity, institutions are trying to codify a more propositional explanation of impact. They want to shine a light on the pathway to impact, and put what Bush and Polanyi might simply have called “the way” into formulae, methods, and metrics.

The defining feature of our accountability culture is the quest for a philosophy of impact that does not rely on serendipity. To give an account is to spell out concretely how impacts happen, not just to wave your hands over some black-boxed alchemical transformation. In the U.S., the impact agenda is largely confined to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. But the humanities will soon be under the accountability spotlight. Will it warm like the sun, or will it blind like the interrogator’s lamp?

It is not inevitable that the Newtonian “force” of this new model of impact – think billiard balls – will run roughshod over the humanities. We actually think the impact regime can bring about a renaissance for humanities in the US. It might awaken us from our disciplinary slumbers. By some estimates, 85% of research in the humanities goes uncited and perhaps even unread by anyone. It is a moribund business, which could use a jolt.

The humanities are critical to formulating a philosophy of impact that strikes a balance between secrecy and force. One place to begin, as our colleague Frodeman describes, is to elaborate an ethics and epistemology of impact. Under the serendipity model, impact pathways are shrouded in mystery; in Newtonian schemes, they are shattered into isolatable component parts. A middle way, then, would seek balance between illuminating pathways to impact and interrupting them. Instead of designing better tools for impact-atom smashing, we need to ponder how to assess the robustness of impact mechanisms, the processes through which knowledge and products can flow.

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