Economic impact and humanities research

Much debate in the education and, sometimes, mainstream press has been given over to the government’s new focus on demonstrating the ‘economic impact’ of university research.  Arguably not enough though.

According to HEFCE, it is not just ‘economic’ impact that needs to be more clearly emphasised when making the case for research funding, but impact on ‘public policy, culture and quality of life’.  But, diluting the nature of the measure is unlikely to make the task of arguing the case of the value of in-depth arts and humanities research any easier.

Why should the state support a 21 year old undertaking research for a PhD on, say, the use of rhyme in early medieval poetry?

Assessing the worth of cultural endeavour has never been a straightforward task. The AHRC and DCMS are about to advertise for a research fellow to undertake work on this theme. This blog has highlighted research and other contributions on this issue.

But it won’t go away.

Maybe we have got the terms of the argument wrong.  The contribution said 21 year old can make to our economy is likely to be little different from a 21 year old studying, say, nuclear physics.  What further ‘impact’ or value might that research have on the wider economy?  What will it tell us that we don’t already know?  It is not the ‘research’ which has an impact, it is the ‘learning’.  The value, surely, is in the activity of research – not the focus of that research. Human endeavour is what might push the boundaries of our knowledge, generate new ideas and innovations, and expand our economic (and human) potential.  Whether it be in medieval poetry or nuclear physics.  The latter is likely to have a more obvious and identifiable impact, but it may not be more important.

However – so long as the inspiration and fascination generated by Anish Kapoor or the Matthew Passion (or Chaucerian poetry) outweighs our ability to articulate it in quasi-bureaucratic ‘economic impact’ language, then the quest for alternative measures will go on.

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