Against "impact"

In defence of the humanities

James Ladyman, professor of philosophy at Bristol University, has launched a petition on the No. 10 website urging Gordon Brown to reverse the policy of HEFCE, the government's funding body for higher education, to "direct [research] funds to projects whose outcomes are determined to have a significant 'impact'".

HEFCE's Research Excellence Framework, which will replace the unmourned Research Assessment Exercise, identifies three "key characteristics of research excellence": "outputs", "impact" and "environment". It's the implications of the second of those criteria, "impact", that are most worrying. "Significant additional recognition will be given," the HEFCE policy document reads, "where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life. Impacts will be assessed through a case-study approach that will be tested in a pilot exercise."

Ladyman's petition points out that whilst arts and humanities disciplines, like his own, philosophy, do have such an impact, that effect is often hard to quantify and is rarely, if ever, discernible in the short term. And it's not only the humanities that would suffer from this grotesquely utilitarian formula either: what, for example, are the "demonstrable" economic benefits of string theory or the more arcane regions of the higher mathematics?

There's nothing unprecedented about all this, of course. Universities have long been the crucible of a massive managerialist experiement, ever since Thatcherism began its destructive march through Britain's institutions. But the emasculation of higher education does seem to be gathering pace. I understand that several post-1992 universities are planning to close their philosophy departments on economic grounds. It's not at all clear that the hollowed-out, technocratic institutions that will remain could properly continue to call themselves "universities". As Brad Hooker, president of the British Philosophical Association argued this year, when the philosophy department at the University of Liverpool was threatened with closure:

Any university without philosophy will lack a forum for studying some of the most profound and pivotal questions. For philosophy is the discipline that addresses questions about what knowledge is; about how human beings should behave individually and collectively; about whether there are sound arguments for religious belief; about the nature of truth and beauty; about which forms of reasoning are valid; and about the underlying presuppositions of other subjects, from history to psychology to biology.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage