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.

 

--Sign up to the New Statesman newsletter and receive weekly updates from the team--

 

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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