Would Socrates have got research funding?

The perils of "measurable output"

As an addendum to my previous post on the Research Excellence Framework, let me point you to a piece written three years ago for the Times Higher Education Supplement by the philosopher Simon Blackburn. Blackburn was writing in the era of the REF's predecessor, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), but the problems he describes are familiar:

[W]e . . . find with gratitude that "the sub-panel is aware that research of high quality is very often carried out by individual scholars". Phew! A close call then for Plato, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein and the rest. They just squeak in, although whether in their own time they would have done so at the 1*, 2*, 3* or 4* level might puzzle us to say. Well, actually it would not, since most of them fail the requirement to show four "outputs" every six years, perhaps because they had better things to think about and would therefore have come in unclassified, right at the bottom, without even a brown star.

Of course, you can argue that with some version of the RAE in place they would have produced a constant stream of masterpieces, one every 18 months, regular like nanny says. But it does not seem very likely . . . A strange place to end up for an activity whose only true practitioners, according to Socrates in the Phaedrus, are those sincerely able to argue that their own writings are of little worth. But then, what colour star would Socrates have got? He never wrote a thing. No measurable output at all. Rubbish.

 

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

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Are women-only carriages the way forward?

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