Excellent column by David Mitchell over at the Observer regarding the madness of the proposed Research Excellent Framework and how it relates to arts and humanities research:
…this greater emphasis on making academics justify their work in terms that results-obsessed government bodies will understand is worrying.
And that’s where the talk of research of social value comes in. It’s a sop to the arts side. They’re trying to find a way to quantify the usefulness of a greater insight into paintings, books or historical events because they know they’re not of much economic value, other than to get the odd documentary commissioned, but have a vague memory of someone saying at a dinner that they mattered. They’re trying to squeeze them into a plus column in their new spreadsheet of learning. Well, if that’s their only way of according knowledge worth, then they’re the wrong people to be making the decisions.
What separates us from the beasts, apart from fire, laughter, depression and guilt about killing the odd beast, is our curiosity. We’ve advanced as a species because we’ve wanted to find things out, regardless of whether we thought it useful. We looked at the sky and wondered what was going on – that’s why, for better or worse, we’ve got DVD players, ventilators, nuclear weapons, global warming, poetry and cheese string. And it’s for better, by the way.
The Research Excellence Framework is starting to ask what sorts of curiosity our culture can afford, and that scares me even more than the demise of the silly survey because it strikes at the heart of what it means to be civilised, to have instincts other than survival. If academic endeavour had always been vetted in advance for practicality, we wouldn’t have the aeroplane or the iPhone, just a better mammoth trap.