Nussbaum on the ways that ‘impact’ could actually diminish impact

Martha Nussbaum writes:

To begin thinking about why this focus on “impact” is a pernicious business, we can do no better than to pause to honor one of the greatest classical scholars of the past century, who illuminated the world through such unfashionable values as mastery, rigor, and a passion for truth…Challenging the received wisdom that sexual desire and choice vary little from one society to another, Dover showed that ancient Greek social norms profoundly structured sexual experience and even desire, making the desire of an older man for a younger one feel not unnatural, but profoundly normal and natural: even the gods themselves were thought to enjoy such passions…

In Britain today there is a new government program called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Under the REF, scholars in all fields will be rated, and fully twenty-five percent of each person’s rating* will be assigned for the “impact” of their work—not including its impact on other scholars or on people who like to think, but only including the crasser forms such “impact” might take. (Paradigmatic examples are “improved health outcomes or growth in business revenue.”) “Impact” must be immediate and short-term, and it must be brought about by the scholar’s own efforts, not by the way in which another generation might find their world enlivened by a book the scholar has produced….

Dover would do poorly in the REF: even his widely influential ideas were not “marketed” by him, but were simply put out there to be picked up by others, a process that may take many years. And yet they changed our understanding of human sexuality. While the world mourns a towering figure (and while I mourn a man of the highest sort of daring, whom I am lucky to have known as a friend), let us not mourn the passing of the type of scholarship he loved. Let us fight for it, because it may still survive. If it does not, our nations and our individual spirits will be the poorer. The pursuit of short-term profit is death to the life of the mind.

*Actually, Nussbaum’s not quite right here: 25% of a department’s rating will be based on a couple of case studies of impact– so a department could do really well on impact even if only one or two scholars have work with an impact. But it’s still pernicious in just the ways she describes.

One thought on “Nussbaum on the ways that ‘impact’ could actually diminish impact

  1. This is really worrying. I’m working my way into academia at present (1st year part time PhD student in the UK – I work full time on top of that, similarly through the two years of part time MA by research)…. My field is English Literature and when I went for funding last year, one of my shortlist interview questions was ‘why might people outside of Universities be interested in your research’…

    i can understand the drive for such questions and such ratings, but I worry what it will do to original research with no direct ‘impact’, and I’m totally with the last sentence quoted here: ‘The pursuit of short-term profit is death to the life of the mind.’

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