Our re­search fund­ing sys­tem is short­chang­ing the hu­man­i­ties

The Guardian Australia - - Science - John Maren­bon

The gov­ern­ment’s re­search ex­cel­lence frame­work (Ref) is per­haps the ul­ti­mate in bu­reau­cratic ex­er­cises. It aims ev­ery seven years to as­sess, depart­ment by depart­ment, ev­ery “re­search ac­tive” aca­demic in the UK. The aim is laud­able: to en­sure that a stream of re­search fund­ing (known as QR) is dis­trib­uted to uni­ver­si­ties fairly and trans­par­ently. But for the hu­man­i­ties, the Ref does noth­ing but harm.

Few would quar­rel with the prin­ci­ple of a sys­tem of as­sess­ment for the hu­man­i­ties based on read­ing and judg­ing work sub­mit­ted, rather than one us­ing ci­ta­tion in­dexes and other bib­lio­met­ric data. But the scale of the task makes mean­ing­ful or hon­est as­sess­ment im­pos­si­ble. There are too few as­ses­sors to pro­vide com­pe­tent, spe­cialised judge­ment on the range of work sub­mit­ted. The work­load im­posed on them re­quires su­per­hu­man ca­pac­i­ties: along with their nor­mal teach­ing and re­search, panel mem­bers must read the equiv­a­lent of a full-length book ev­ery day for nine months.

They can hardly be blamed if they skim or sam­ple (“10 min­utes for a book, two min­utes for an ar­ti­cle” is what one source told me). Com­pare the care taken to judge an ar­ti­cle for a jour­nal: two spe­cial­ist ref­er­ees must jus­tify their ver­dict in de­tail, be­fore ed­i­tors make fur­ther checks. The Ref as­sess­ment turns out to be a sham, an ex­er­cise in bad faith, giv­ing only the ap­pear­ance of judg­ing aca­demics’ work fairly, not the re­al­ity.

To make mat­ters worse, there is a very crude sys­tem of scor­ing, which in ef­fect con­sid­ers each out­put as ei­ther good (“world-lead­ing” = 4*), al­right (“in­ter­na­tion­ally ex­cel­lent”=3*) or use­less (“recog­nised in­ter­na­tion­ally”=2*; “recog­nised na­tion­ally” =1* – both of which at­tract zero fund­ing). Mono­graphs – which still rep­re­sent much of the best work in most hu­man­i­ties dis­ci­plines, pro­vid­ing new, thor­ough analy­ses in depth – can be counted as only two out­puts at most, although they might be 20 times the length of an ar­ti­cle and re­quire 50 times as much work. As a re­sult, am­bi­tious re­searchers focus on ar­ti­cles, which are of­ten su­per­fi­cial, at the ex­pense of mono­graphs of last­ing value.

At­tempt­ing to mea­sure im­pact on the world out­side the uni­ver­si­ties is also fail­ing the hu­man­i­ties. In the next Ref, in 2021, im­pact will count for a quar­ter of the whole score. The cri­te­ria are not de­signed for hu­man­i­ties sub­jects, but rather for sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies or tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances. They ex­clude aca­demic books that reach a

wide au­di­ence of gen­eral read­ers – the real way schol­ars in his­tory, lit­er­a­ture, art and phi­los­o­phy make an im­pact. Since the Ref tends to give low rat­ings to gen­eral and pop­u­lar­is­ing pub­li­ca­tions, the best aca­demics are dis­cour­aged from shar­ing their knowl­edge and ideas with the pub­lic.

Bad though the Ref is, many would say that it, or some­thing sim­i­lar, is needed to dis­trib­ute QR. But that dis­guises the truth. The fees paid by hu­man­i­ties stu­dents more than cover the full costs of their teach­ing, in­clud­ing their teach­ers’ sab­bat­i­cal re­search leave, and another 100% for over­heads. A high-per­form­ing hu­man­i­ties depart­ment might in­crease the amount its uni­ver­sity re­ceives in QR, or even be re­warded fi­nan­cially by the uni­ver­sity for do­ing so (though prob­a­bly not) – but if the hu­man­i­ties de­part­ments in the UK are re­garded as a whole, no QR money reaches them. They are be­ing obliged to com­pete in the Ref for money they never re­ceive.

The Ref, then, causes real harm, dis­tort­ing the work­ing pat­terns of aca­demics in the hu­man­i­ties, dis­cour­ag­ing them from pop­u­lar­is­ing their ideas, and de­ceiv­ing them with as­sess­ments made in such a way that they can­not be re­li­able. It wastes vast amounts of time and en­ergy that could be spent on teach­ing and re­search. Yet there is no re­al­is­tic way of mak­ing this bad sys­tem work. Good as­sess­ment would cost far more work­ing hours, more as­ses­sors, more as­ses­sors to check the as­ses­sors. Far bet­ter to recog­nise that, since the hu­man­i­ties do not gain fi­nan­cially from the Ref, and work in them is hin­dered by it, they should be ex­cluded from the sys­tem. Col­leagues in other dis­ci­plines would be grate­ful if such a change led to a lighter sys­tem of as­sess­ment. In the hu­man­i­ties, most would heave a sigh of re­lief.

John Maren­bon is a se­nior re­search fel­low of Trin­ity Col­lege, Cam­bridge. His In­tan­gi­ble As­sets: Fund­ing Re­search in the Arts and Hu­man­i­ties is pub­lished by Po­liteia

Stock Photo Pho­to­graph: Photonon­stop/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy

‘The Ref wastes vast amounts of time that could be spent on teach­ing and re­search.’

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