The utility of pure curiosity

Pondering the strange paradox that Cambridge is currently ranked second (after Harvard) in the world ranking of universities, despite the fact that its income is probably only a fifth of Harvard’s, I came on this terrific blog post by Mary Beard, who is Professor of Classics at Cambridge. Excerpt:

I still have a terrible sinking feeling about the new Research Excellence Framework, and its stress on the ‘impact’ of research. I took a good hard look at the recent consultation document produced by HEFCE … and at the “indicators” which might demonstrate “impact”. There are almost forty indicators, of which only four or five could possible ever apply to an arts and humanities subject. Most refer to income from industry, increased turnover for particular businesses, improved health outcome, better drugs (medicinal rather than recreational I imagine) and changes in public opinion (eg reductions in smoking). One of my colleagues ruefully observed that humanities research probably had a track record of encouraging smoking, at least among researchers… all that angst in the library.

Even the indicators which looked as if they might apply to us. Try “enriched appreciation of heritage or culture, for example as measured through surveys.” How on earth would a survey show the impact of, lets say, Wittgenstein? Even HEFCE seems to have given up at the end. Under the category “Other quality of life benefits” there were no indicators. Someone had just written “Please suggest what might be included”. A generous appeal to the academic community, or desperation?


British research punches far above its weight — unlike British sport (which is no more “useful”). If our middle distance runners did half as well as our universities (four out of the top six in the recent world ranking are British), there would be a national celebration and a triumphal procession in an open topped bus.

And look at the money the government is pouring into sport, on the correct principle … that you have to support generously a wide range of activities and people, in order to produce a very few medallists. Why dont they use that argument for academic research too?