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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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