The spirit-crushing impact of impact

On December 6, 2013


A couple of years ago I contributed a chapter entitled “Science as a Public Good” to a book called A Manifesto for the Public University, edited by John Holmwood, a colleague in the School of Sociology and Social Policy here in Nottingham. As a prelude to the following diatribe   cri de coeur reasoned dissection of the impact agenda, here’s the opening paragraph from that chapter (you can read both the chapter and, indeed, the entire book, for free via the preceding links):

“I have a confession to make. It’s a difficult admission in the current funding climate for academics in the UK, but here it is: I am a scientist. Not an engineer. Not a technologist. And certainly not an entrepreneur. I pursue basic research into fundamental questions about the properties of matter on a variety of different length scales (ranging, in my case, from sub-atomic to sub-millimetre dimensions), in common with a very large number of my colleagues working in the physical and life sciences in British universities. Whether or not this research can be translated into a marketable product, exploited as profitable intellectual property (IP), or applied in technology is not what motivates me. My motivation, again in common with the majority of academic scientists in the UK,1 lies in improving our understanding of nature, generating (not protecting) new knowledge, and disseminating my findings to other scientists, students and society at large.”

Clare Burrage, a Royal Society University Fellow in the Particle Theory Group at Nottingham – and, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, a fellow participant in the Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme – managed to distil the essence of the paragraph above into a pithy one-sentence question following a presentation by Alexandra Saxon, Head of Research Council UK’s Strategy Unit, in Westminster on Tuesday afternoon this week.

Before I reveal Clare’s question, here’s a slide which is wholly representative of the content of Alexandra’s talk:

business engagement slide

The entire focus of the RCUK presentation was on engagement with business and industry. (It’s worth noting that this was given to a room-full of scientists). Fundamental science that didn’t link to some aspect of commercialisation or direct socioeconomic impact didn’t get a look-in.

Clare’s question following the presentation neatly summed up the feelings of quite a few in the room. I had to struggle to maintain my usual dignified silence (*cough*) and not cheer out loud when Clare asked this:

“I’m a researcher working on theoretical particle physics – where do I fit in?”

To be fair to Alexandra, she, along with a number of other RCUK representatives, regularly faces the music in front of crowds of academics and it is to her, and her colleagues’, immense credit that there is a strong willingness to engage with disgruntled academics. It’s a shame, however, that the willingness to interact with rank-and-file academics sometimes isn’t quite as evident further up the chain of the RCUK hierarchy. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, for example, has recently had its wrist slapped about failures to consult sufficiently with academics about its policies (but, again to its credit, has implemented policy changes to deal with this criticism).

Alexandra’s talk was certainly not the first time the spectre of impact reared its head during the days we spent in Westminster. The previous day’s panel featuring Robert Winston, Alan Malcolm, and Chris Tyler amongst others, also touched on the subject of the impact agenda.

I’ve heard the justifications as to why academics should embrace the impact agenda, including those offered by Robert Winston and Alexandra Saxon, countless times before. Let’s take a look at the five most common reasons used to incentivise scientists about impact:

1. Without the impact agenda, the science budget would have been cut dramatically – the flat-cash settlement we have ‘enjoyed’ over the last few years would not have been possible. Anti-impact sentiment threatens the science budget.

First, there is a very troublesome aspect of this argument which suggests that academics should keep their heads well below the parapet and just be happy that they have been protected from the vicious spending cuts imposed across the rest of the public sector. I’ve previously described this as a supine position to adopt, and, without wanting to open old wounds, I remain of that opinion. If academics see problems with just how the research councils distribute funding then it is highly questionable to suggest that they should put those concerns to one side so as not to affect the funding flow. Whatever happened to the traditional university role of speaking truth to power?

The broader point, however, is that expecting academics, regardless of their discipline, to describe the socioeconomic impact of their work in advance of the research project being carried out is antithetical to the exploratory nature of fundamental research. As the University of Nottingham put it in a response to a consultation on the introduction of economic impact criteria into the peer review process back in 2007:

“[This] appears to fly in the face of the purpose of “research” within universities … could stifle highly imaginative, original and creative work, or lead to dubious, often irrefutable, claims in many areas of science – especially fundamental/“blue skies” research.

(Sorry to be so parochial – you can find very similar statements from Cambridge and Glasgow, for example, in the chapter from A Manifesto for the Public University linked to above).

Moreover, why is asking academics to fill in a Pathways to Impact statement (and, for EPSRC, an account of National Importance) at the proposal stage, i.e. prior to starting a research project, the best way to demonstrate the socioeconomic impact of research to government?

2. You’re a publicly funded academic. You can’t just stay in your ivory tower – you have to think about the societal impact of your work.

If there’s one justification for the impact agenda that really gets my goat and grinds my gears, it’s this one. The impact agenda, for the reasons detailed in that chapter from AMPU, was not introduced because the research councils/HEFCE/government suddenly became extremely concerned that not enough academics were engaging with the public. It was introduced as a direct response to a series of government reports on the need to change the culture in university departments so as to make academia more responsive to business and industry needs.

I, along with a significant majority of my colleagues, am intensely aware of my obligations as a publicly funded academic, and spend a significant amount of time on public engagement and outreach. For example, when I finish writing this I’m boarding a train to Loughborough to give a talk to a school there on the relationship between rock music and quantum physics. (I’ll also not pass up this opportunity to plug Brady Haran’s channels, and Sixty Symbols in particular).

One can also very easily make the counter-argument that, by incentivising academics to interact closely with business and industry, the disinterested and independent qualities of academic research are being progressively eroded. That is, the impact agenda, like many aspects of the coalition government’s policies is not about improving the public good character of university science at all: it’s about making the public sector responsive to private business.

I am, of course, not for one minute suggesting that all academic-industry collaborations are compromised by the need to improve the company’s bottom line. Nonetheless, there are some shocking examples of where academic research has been distorted badly due to commercial pressures. I referred yesterday to the tagline of George Monbiot’s recent article: “Government policy in Britain, Canada and Australia is crushing academic integrity on behalf of corporate power”. The impact agenda certainly doesn’t help to bolster the integrity of academic research in the face of commercial pressures.

3. The government expects a return on its investment in university research.

Richard Jones, PVC for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield, has pointed out that the key reason why there is intense pressure on UK academics to demonstrate the impact of their work is that private sector investment in R&D in the UK (as a percentage of GDP) heavily lags behind that of other OECD nations. Thus, academia is expected to pick up the slack for this lack of investment from the private sector.

The key thing here is that fundamental scientific research is but one component of a highly complex innovation ecosystem. Although the motivation for academics to carry out basic, so-called curiosity-driven science is very often not the economic impact of the work – we instead are focussed on understanding fundamental aspects of nature – it is clear that the most disruptive innovations are exceptionally unlikely to stem from work which is focused on near-market impact. In this sense, by progressively skewing the research base towards commercial, near-market R&D, the total return on government investment may well be damaged, not enhanced.

Expecting academics to handle all aspects of the innovation system – from fundamental research to manufacturing and “product to market” – is in any case an exceptionally naïve strategy. Andre Geim pointed out in the Guardian earlier this week that perhaps the government should look somewhere other than the universities when apportioning blame for the so-called “valley of death” between fundamental research and commercial exploration. Jones has made this argument convincingly for quite some time.

Moreover, an exceptionally important – arguably, the most important – contribution to the return on investment for government spending on university science is the “human capital” we produce. David Willetts clearly recognised this when he spoke of the “absorptive capacity” of our society and innovation systems shortly after the Coalition government came to power.

4. “But it’s not all about economic impact – public engagement is impact as well.”

It is laudable that the research councils recognise that public engagement and outreach are essential components of the impact agenda. Why then do RCUK representatives focus so heavily on links with business and industry? In the talk on Tuesday – and this is true of very many other talks from research council representatives I’ve seen – lip service, at best, is paid to the remarkably inspiring fundamental science stemming from UK academia. Geim and Novoselov’s Nobel prize-winning discovery of graphene – and the government’s investment in commercialisation of the carbon wunderkind – are regularly highlighted without mention that graphene stemmed not from the impact agenda or directed programmes of the type to which EPSRC is now fully committed, but from exploratory, curiosity-driven fundamental science with no commercial application in mind.

One could also ask why, if EPSRC, for example, is so committed to public engagement, it no longer has a dedicated budget to fund public engagement projects.

5. “We’re just as committed to fundamental science as we ever were”

Lilian Greenwood, the MP with whom Clare Burrage and myself are paired in the Royal Society scheme, asked an excellent question of David Willetts yesterday morning during the Business, Innovation, and Skills questions session:

“Does the Minister agree that investing in fundamental research is vital to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers and to create conditions for the serendipitous discoveries of the future?”

David Willetts responded:

I completely agree with the Honourable Lady, which is why the Government support fundamental research. Only last week I went to the launch of £250 million of public money for centres of doctoral training run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council”


Similarly, research council and HEFCE representatives repeatedly claim that there has been no change in their support of fundamental research.

The key question here is just what is meant by fundamental research. It is interesting that each and every one of the new Centres for Doctoral Training to which Willetts refers has industrial partners (as compared to 50% of CDTs involving industrial collaboration in the previous round). Moreover, there was a very strong steer from EPSRC that those CDTs should have training programmes “co-created” with industry. One might reasonably ask just what Mr. Willetts, BIS, RCUK, and HEFCE understand by the term “fundamental research”.

As I’ve also harped on about previously, it is rather difficult to understand RCUK’s commitment to fundamental research when the #1 tip in its Top Ten list of tips on how to complete a grant application is “Draft the impact summary very early in your preparation, so that it informs the design of your research”. That’s a great piece of advice if you’re writing a proposal to do applied, near-market research, or R&D for a company. It’s certainly not how fundamental science proceeds. Indeed, one could credibly argue that it’s a distortion of the scientific method.

This has been a long (but cathartic!) post, for which my apologies. I would like to close by stating that I’m aware that a lot of what I’ve written above could prompt strong responses. I would welcome the opportunity to debate these issues in the comments section below. Given RCUK’s and HEFCE’s commitment to public accountability in all areas of research, comments from research/funding council representatives would be particularly welcome.

Image: The molecular structure of graphene. The “wonder material” was discovered from curiosity-driven fundamental science without a commercial application in mind.

About Philip Moriarty

Philip Moriarty is a Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham, where his research focuses on nanoscale science. He is a member of the Science Board of the Institute of Physics and was Chair of the Institute of Physics Nanoscale Physics and Technology Group committee from 2009 until December last year. He has participated in a number of research council-funded public engagement projects, including Giants of the Infinitesimal, and is a member of the Steering Committee of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. He is also a regular contributor to Nottingham's Sixty Symbols video series.

33 Responses to The spirit-crushing impact of impact

  1. I’m reminded of Richard Strohman who, as early as 1999, said

    “Academic biologists and corporate researchers have become indistinguishable, and special awards are now given for collaborations between these two sectors for behavior that used to be cited as a conflict of interest.”

    We can’t say we weren’t warned.

  2. On the point you make about graphene being “discovered from curiosity-driven fundamental science without a commercial application in mind”. I remember in the questions section of a talk given by Phil Woodruff about serendipity in research, someone stood up to tell us they had had a grant application rejected for studying graphene before 2004. The grant was not funded because there was “little interest in single layer graphite” (or something to this effect, I can’t remember the exact quote).

  3. My “strong response”? I strongly agree with all you’ve written.
    I always thought that the government’s decision to ‘universitise’ all the polytechnics in fact marked the beginning of the end of pure research as the universities were forced to become polys overnight.

  4. Excellent blog, Philip. The situation is odd in terms of the expected return to public investment. IPR on RCUK public-funded research goes entirely to ‘individual and employee’, with no return to the public purse from which it was funded. Indeed, from Rothschild through fEC, the intention has been to not subsidise private beneficiaries but charge the full cost of research. Now, it seems that there is to be no research except that there is a private beneficiary, but that beneficiary is not required to pay – indeed, it is only the public that pays fEC through the research councils and the support for research charities. I recommend the excellent book by Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State, for how short-term commercial interests are dominating science to the cost of the innovations that came from a long-term ‘disinterested’ commitment to research.

  5. This recent uproar in the internet about the current state of academia has been very worrisome for me. There’s this post, there’s Pamela Gay’s post in Star Stryder about women in academia, there’s The Guardian’s articles on Peter Higgs and all the blog posts that spawned from it…

    Well, I’m a Brazilian undergraduate Astrophysics student, currently in a 1-year exchange in the Netherlands, and I didn’t know about the impact agenda until a few months ago. I was actually very surprised when I received the news that I got a government-funded scholarship to study abroad, because I didn’t have high hopes at that point. But, as always, there’s a catch: they expect me to do an internship, preferably in a company. They say that I’m not expected to conduct an undergrad research, because I could as well do that in Brazil, it would be cheaper (for them). So, yeah, in the end, they want me to have what they call “corporative” experience, they want something that could be used by the local economy.

    If things continue to go downhill, well, I don’t know. Sometimes I think that, in the future, working with fundamental sciences might be like being an artist.

    I’m a simple man, I can live with few things. Just… don’t take the fun of life away from me. I will continue to do Astronomy, until I don’t find it fun anymore.

    • Hi, Leonardo.

      Sitting in front of me on my office desk is the latest issue of Science in Parliament , which I picked up during the “Week in Westminster” event referred to in the post above. On p.12, there’s an article entitled “How do we inspire our future scientists?”

      Your comment shows just how we shouldn’t inspire future scientists, by telling them that if they, against increasingly difficult odds, manage to secure a lectureship at a university they will effectively end up as outsourced researchers for the R&D wing of a company. This certainly would not have inspired me as an undergraduate and PhD student. If I wanted to work in industry on near-market problems, that’s where I’d be.

      The Institute of Physics has carried out a number of studies which show that the primary motivation for the majority of students taking physics at university is that they want to address the “big” questions about the structure of the Universe multiverse and the fabric of nature. The impact agenda is having the very worrying effect of not only demoralising the current generation of scientists pursuing fundamental research but of turning off the next generation. A frustrating double whammy.

      I find it particularly irritating because, as I said to Alexandra Saxon in the meeting last week, up until about five or six years ago, in my opinion EPSRC was one of the best research councils in Europe (apart from a few minor niggles): it strongly supported young researchers. Te ability to get funding for independent research at an early stage of one’s career was a major factor in my deciding to stay in the UK, rather than return to Ireland in the early ‘noughties’ when Science Foundation Ireland was providing a lot of funding.


  6. I don’t disagree with you on any of this but I think the inclusion of the graphene picture and bits about serendipity still frame the debate in terms of commercial use. And this could be counter productive.

    To me the purpose of fundamental research is like the purpose of humanities – there should be no actual purpose or end point in mind; we should do it because we can, and it increases the wealth of human knowledge.

    In fact, many of our politicians and senior civil servants are humanities graduates and understand the study of humanities in terms of increasing human knowledge. Perhaps framing fundamental research in these terms may actually make them view it differently?

    The impact statement of a piece of cosmological research is simple: “we will know more about the universe we live in.” That should be enough. OK, I know it should be more technical than that but impact statements which commodify and commercialise fundamental science should be resisted at all costs.

    In many ways fundamental research is no different to music or any other artistic endeavor, it’s about letting skilled people “play” and see where they get to. Music or art does not have to have a commercial value to have worth to humanity (unless, of course, you’re a record company exec or art dealer).

    The Feynman work with the title “The Please of Finding Things Out” sums up why fundamental research should be done.



    PS I shall declare two interests here:

    1. I trained and worked as an engineer for 10 years. And many time me and my colleagues tried things out that had no practical application. We did it becasue we could, and it was fun. Even us engineers do stuff with no practical purpose, just to see if we can. Though I should add as I’m now a pubic sector trade union official “fun” is not part of my everyday experience.

    2. I am Lilian Greenwood’s husband.

    • Ravi, I agree with everything you say. The goal of finding out more about the Universe is the only reason I get up and go to work in the morning.

      I am wary, however, of making the argument that science should be just like the humanities because the humanities are currently funded at a much lower level than the sciences. Probably that means that the humanities should also be getting more funding, but I think that if we argue that we should only do science to increase the wealth of human knowledge then our funding is likely to be slashed.

      In my view science deserves more funding than the humanities, because it does give rise to tangible as well as intangible benefits to society. What the Impact agenda doesn’t seem to recognize though is that these benefits are not predictable in advance, often occur only on very long timescales, and that these benefits are not what motivates scientists.
      If we want to get the best out of our scientists we need to understand that what motivates them is the pleasure of finding things out.

      • I quite agree that the impact of a piece of fundamental research can justifiably be “we will know more about the universe we live in”. I fully concur with “the pleasure of finding out”.

        The problem comes when the fundamental research carries on for fifty years and we don’t know more about the universe, and we don’t have the pleasure of finding things out. What we get instead is unscientific fairytales like M-theory and the multiverse.

        There are other examples, closer to home. Take a look at gamma-gamma pair production. Wikipedia is faithful to the standard model when it says “a photon can, within the bounds of the uncertainty principle, fluctuate into a charged fermion-antifermion pair, to either of which the other photon can couple”. But think about it. That’s saying pair production occurs because pair production occurs, spontaneously, like worms from mud. And that a photon spends its time constantly morphing into an electron and a positron, which then magically morph back into a single photon, which nevertheless manages to keep on going at the speed of light. It’s nonsense. But do we see that’s interesting, can you tell me more? No. What we see is dismissal instead.

        Because the real problem is that those physicists on the public purse who promote such nonsense stand in the way of physics that isn’t nonsense. They stand in the way of scientific progress. And until this is addressed, complaints about having to demonstrate impact and scientific progress cut no ice.

      • My humanities comment was more to point out that many of the people in power at Westminster (politicians and civil servants) are humanities graduates – so making science research arguments in their frame of reference might well help sometimes.

        I suspect many senior Tory politicians who might have humanities degrees would only see science in purely capitalist / neo-liberal economic terms with respect to the commercial value. Hence fundamental research with no obvious commercial benefit would be seen of little value to them.

        But perhaps oddly, such a person who was humanities graduate would perhaps see the benefit of historical research, the classics, English literature. They may not actually see science as “the pleasure of finding things out” because (and I don’t want to stereotype here) many humanities graduates have no idea about science. I’ll bet Michael Gove, who studied English at Oxford sees science research in terms of the commercial value it can deliver. But if you frame cosmological research in similar terms to researching and studying Chaucer he would more likely get it, as Chaucer would trigger an emotional response as well as a hard headed logical one.

        As I said in my original comment, I’m a trade union official and one thing I’ve learned to do when I’m negotiating is to try to trigger an emotional response and to frame my argument in the employer’s terms

        So I don’t wish to limit you to one argument – you can, and should make the serendipity argument but you can also make a humanities type argument too – but of course only to the right sort of person.

        And finally, as a (former) engineer, I shall add my tuppence to the serendipity argument. The development of imaginary numbers in the 1500s had few practical applications. But if you look at the development of large-scale electricity generation I’m not sure we would have had AC rather than DC if imaginary numbers to elegantly solve differential equations. I know this is maths and not fundamental science research, but the serendipity argument applies here.

        I’m only an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to maths and physics, but it’s clear from Philip’s post and the subsequent comments the way fundamental research is assessed and funded is wrong. And it needs fixing.

    • Hi, Ravi.

      I agree entirely that the motivation for fundamental research should not be its long-term commercial “pay-off”. This is why I included that paragraph from “Science as a Public Good” right at the start of the post — I wanted to “lay out my stall” from the outset. I, along with the majority of those working in fundamental physics, don’t do science because I’m interested in the short- or long-term “pay-off”. (See Against The Grain: ‘I didn’t become a scientist to help companies profit” for more on this).

      I’m also a musician so agree entirely with the comparison with the arts! In addition, I agonised over whether I should do an English or Physics degree at university, and think that fundamental science is indeed much closer in spirit to the arts and humanities, rather than engineering, as you suggest. What’s very interesting is that in a joint HoL/HoC Select Committee meeting last year, Lord Krebs made exactly that point, asking whether it was appropriate for Engineering and Physical Sciences to be part of the same research council. It’s a great shame that Krebs’ comment didn’t attract more attention.

      On the other hand, however, and as we were repeatedly told during the Royal Society “Week in Westminster”, arguments based on science are right at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to funding policy. Economics always wins out. This is the key reason why many of us also make the economic argument.

      Perhaps, as you say, this is ultimately self-defeating…


      • Philip

        I read the link and I think your line “But I am against taxpayers’ money being used for research which is neither for the public good nor in the public domain” sums it up. This should be applied to all tax payer funded research, applied or otherwise.

        I wasn’t trying to compare engineering with fundamental science research, it was a badly crafted tongue in cheek comment. Us engineers are often derided, by pure scientists for our interest in science solely being about how it can be applied. I wanted to illustrate that even engineers like doing stuff “just because you can” and “just to see what happens” even though it may have no practical applications. There is a playfulness required in research that even engineers like me can appreciate.

        See my earlier comment in response to Clare with respect to my humanities comments.

        To be honest, if you take a wider political and economic perspective, when we have a pretty much global neo-liberal economic model, the issues you are facing are not surprising. They are as a direct consequence of global political and economic forces. And in that respect your job and mine are very similar: the public sector workers in UNISON that I represent are suffering job cuts, low pay, outsourcing etc that are also as a direct consequence of global political and economic forces.

  7. The situation here in Ireland is similar but perhaps has gone at least one step further as now Science Foundation Ireland or SFI “will use international experts in the translation and commercialisation of scientific research to review and evaluate Impact Statements” for all new individual research proposals being assessed.

    This follows on from our own National Research Prioritisation exercise, where after the laudable emphasis on direct economic impact i.e. jobs, the foolish decision was taken to remove all other funding from any topic that could not fit into these categories. “Fundamental Science = No.”

    Thus for instance those in astrophysics, mathematics or high energy physics who are very-far-from-market have no chance of receiving such an award, while those far-from-market with otherwise excellent scientific credentials following curiosity driven research – which could perhaps lead to the next graphene equivalent in their areas – are likewise negatively impacted by “Impact”.

    • I did my BSc and PhD at Dublin City University and have friends and colleagues there, so knew that the situation in Ireland was particularly bad. The key issue here is that by forcing all researchers to be responsive to the market, SFI – and the other Irish funding bodies – fail to recognise that science, technology, and innovation are not one and the same thing.

      I mentioned one of Richard Jones’ excellent blog posts above. Here’s another one which is well worth reading: Innovation policy and long term economic growth in the UK – a story in four graphs

      I also contributed this to a debate in The Economist (online) last year. In that I flag up the question of the UK’s Technology Strategy Board. The TSB already does a good job of fostering university-industry collaboration for near-market R&D. One might ask why EPSRC is evolving into another TSB? I’ll quote from a document which was submitted in response to a call for evidence regarding the Triennial Review of the Research Councils:

      The research councils, particularly EPSRC, are suffering from what might best be termed “mission creep”. Although it might serve the councils well to argue, particularly in the run-up to each CSR, that RCUK-funded research in and of itself can simultaneously serve as the engine of economic growth, as a catalyst for the growth of the UK’s manufacturing base, and as the means to maintain the UK’s world-leading position in fundamental scientific research, this is hopelessly naïve.

      By attempting to be all things to all people, the research councils are compromising their support of one of the few UK successes over a prolonged period of financial downturn – i.e., our record of outstanding research and the associated impact this has on the prestige, and thus economic impact, of the UK HE sector – in order to chase economic returns which, in very many cases, they are fundamentally ill-equipped to pursue. In any case, there is already a highly lauded mechanism for translating university research results to industry and for fostering stronger links between business and the academic sector: the Technology Strategy Board.


  8. I think you need to take a step back and try to see the big picture Philip. Fundamental physics is “owned” by HEP aka particle physics. And there’s been no progress in particle physics for decades. It has had no impact for fifty years, and there’s no prospect of any. So when Clare Burrage asks “I’m a researcher working on theoretical particle physics – where do I fit in?” the blunt answer is “You don’t”. Before you shout Higgs Boson, read A Zeptospace Odyssey by CERN physicist Gian Giudice. The Higgs mechanism is “frightfully ad hoc” and responsible for only 1% of the mass of matter, and the Higgs boson isn’t the central particle of the Standard Model. So there’s a big difference between the facts and the mystery-of-mass hype that flatly contradicts E=mc². Such a big difference in fact, that some physicists now feel that big-science particle-physics has been actively obstructing scientific progress.

    Think about it, and about what Upton Sinclair said: “It is hard to make somebody understand something when his income is based on not understanding it”. CERN stands for Centre European for Research Nuclear, but it lost touch with energy security years ago. The Royal Society is an interest-group-elite for senior scientists, and like Planck said, science advances one funeral at a time. IMHO to put things right you should lobby particle physics rather than politicians. It is the troublesome uncle who squanders every penny he gets, and who gives the family a bad name.

    • “So there’s a big difference between the facts and the mystery-of-mass hype that flatly contradicts E=mc² ”

      I think this comment sums up your rank ignorance. Please go away and learn some physics before commenting on things you obviously know nothing about.

    • The fact that there have been some difficulties in trying to communicate what the Higgs mechanism is to the general public, does not mean that particle physics is useless. The Higgs mechanism is a difficult concept to explain and fundamental physics is much more than the Higgs. I personally work on trying to understand the mystery of dark energy.

      Fundamental physics does pay off, but it takes a long time. Quantum mechanics was developed about 100 years ago as a theory of what happens in the smallest scales. No one at the time thought it would lead to modern transistors or MRI scanners and yet it has. The fundamental research that people are doing now will change the way we think about the world in the future, but no one can say exactly when or how. No one can predict the future after all.

      You don’t invent the electric light bulb by devoting all your time and energy to making increasingly more efficient candles.

      CERN was never supposed to be about energy security so I am unclear why you think that’s relevant.
      The Royal Society is not just about aging senior scientists. They fund a large number of young researchers, including myself.

      • All points noted Clare. I’m all for fundamental physics. I believe in it. It satisfies our hard-wired curiosity, and it makes the world a better place. But see what I said above about gamma-gamma pair production. There’s a photon-photon interaction that remains stubbornly unrecognised by the Standard Model. And much more. But to demonstrate progress and impact you have to say that’s wrong. And that’s when you really understand what Planck said, and what I’m saying here.

        Re dark energy as a further example, IMHO the clues are there in GR and the bag model. And in where does the strong force go in proton-antiproton annihilation to gamma photons? along with what keeps the photon moving at c? See page 5 of where Milgrom mentions elasticity and strength? Think of the balloon analogy for the expanding universe. The pressure within a balloon is balanced by the tension in the skin, and there’s two ways to make the balloon bigger. You can increase the pressure and drive a coach and horses through conservation of energy. Alternatively you can reduce the strength of the skin. Think bubblegum. The skin gets weaker so the existing pressure inflates it further. So the skin gets weaker…

  9. Willetts’s comment about CDTs is disingenuous at best. Industrial “co-creation” (not just support) was essential for obtaining CDT funding. I am aware of CDT applications with fundamental and applied elements, which attracted several million pounds of industrial contribution, but were rejected because of apparent “lack of industrial co-creation”. Even successful bids have had their budgets cut by 15%, with directors being asked to seek more support from industry. To cite the CDTs as evidence for government support of fundamental science is thus grossly misleading.

  10. Philip threw down the gauntlet for Research Council colleagues to respond to his blog so perhaps I will start. For the benefit of others I should state that I am the Director of Strategy and Business Relationships at EPSRC (and prior to that was, on behalf of RCUK, responsible for the peer review study Philip refers to). Philip and I have known each other for some time.

    Philip covers a lot in his blog and to ensure some focus I will address just a few points in this initial reply. I am happy to pick up other points later (time allowing). I should start by saying that the Research Council definition of impact includes economic, societal and also academic impact but, for this discussion, I will use it as Philip has done and take academic impact as a given – hence I will consider impact here as being societal and economic unless otherwise stated.

    There does seem to be one point where Philip and I agree: high quality science does have impact. Philip accepts that we as a research community have a responsibility to communicate those impacts. Call that responsibility an aspect of public engagement if you will. I and my colleagues would, of course, go further and argue that not only do we need to communicate the impacts of research but also that we need to facilitate the impact happening.

    Philip’s post suggests, at least indirectly, that our commitment to achieving impact results in Research Councils moving to funding more near-market research. I would argue that there is no evidence of that. Time and again, Research Councils have reiterated their commitment to fundamental science. In addition we have repeatedly made clear that scientific excellence is a precondition for all that we fund. Excellence is not negotiable. Indeed, most of the industrial colleagues with whom I engage are clear they want Research Councils to fund the highest quality, pre-competitive research and not near-market research.

    One might also assume from Philip’s blog that in trying to facilitate societal and economic impact Research Councils are, directly or indirectly, compromising the quality of UK research. The evidence we have just does not support that concern. Just today I was reading a report ( ) from Elsevier produced for the Department of Business and Innovation and Skills. This shows that amongst the comparator countries in the survey, the UK has “overtaken the US to rank 1st by field-weighted citation impact” (just to be clear that is a measure research excellence or academic impact). That is some achievement and one all of us involved in funding or conducting research should be proud. It also shows that we have strength across all the disciplines concluding “UK research base is well-rounded and impactful across most major research fields”. But is this just a one off effect? Well, no take a look at this report ( Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence full.pdf ) and it is clear that the UK’s research performance has been increasing since the late 80s. Of course there are many reasons for this – and having joined the Research Councils in 1990 I cannot take all the credit ;-) – but the point is that the consideration of societal and economic impact (in 1994 first introduced in EPSRC as “relevance to beneficiaries”) has not been detrimental to research quality. Let me go one step further by pointing out that some studies, e.g. the one referred to here ( show that citation impacts are higher when research is collaborative with industry.

    Anyway, there is so much more I could cover but this response is now already too long. I hope I have clarified some aspects especially the broad nature of impact, our commitment to excellence and that these two things are not incompatible.

    • Hi, Atti.

      Sorry for the delay in responding.

      First, and as I’ve said on more than one occasion in the past, it’s to your immense credit that you interact and engage via blogs. It’d be good to see others at EPSRC and RCUK do this as well!

      I’ll address the key points in your comment one at a time::

      “…that not only do we need to communicate the impacts of research but also that we need to facilitate the impact happening.”

      But the problem is, as I state clearly in the blog post, is that by attempting to “facilitate” impact, you’re adopting a one-size-fits-all approach that is simply not appropriate for fundamental research. The tail is wagging the dog because, as I’ve repeatedly (and tediously!) said before, EPSRC sees impact as the driver of a research programme. That is a stance which is at odds with the ethos of fundamental science.

      ” Time and again, Research Councils have reiterated their commitment to fundamental science.”

      But words are cheap. It’s the policies that EPSRC/RCUK put in place, and the way in which they present the research they fund (see the slide above from Alexandra’s talk), that is important. The “Pathways to Impact” statement; the “National Importance” criterion; the drive to ensure 100% industrial input to CDTs; the targetting of fellowships only in specific areas etc…etc… are all strong indications that EPSRC/RCUK is much less committed to fundamental research than they were ten years ago.

      And by fundamental research, I mean research which is not driven by perceived socioeconomic impact or by national importance. As I said elsewhere, in a slightly different context, I mean research which “…interrogate[s] Nature and learn[s] a little more about how the universe behaves. Free of near-market considerations. Free of commercial constraints. Free of political interference. Free of preconceptions.”

      It’s also worth reading Ravi’s comments in this thread on the value and ethos of fundamental research. He speaks a lot of sense.

      . Excellence is not negotiable.

      Sorry, but if there’s one word that really winds me up it’s “excellence”. I find it quite amusing that so many universities and funding bodies/research councils repeatedly profess a deep commitment to “excellent research”. What’s the alternative? That we strive for mediocrity?! (I really need to get round to writing that “Vacuity of Excellence” blog post…)

      You know as well as I do that the vast majority of the grant proposals you receive are rated excellent in terms of scientific quality. Therefore, the impact criteria often determine the success, or otherwise, of a grant proposal. What is nominally a secondary criterion (after “scientific excellence”) is therefore a de facto primary criterion.

      Let me go one step further by pointing out that some studies, e.g. the one referred to here ( show that citation impacts are higher when research is collaborative with industry.

      Elsewhere at physicsfocus I’ve discussed my strong reservations about citation metrics. See


      I can point to many excellent and inspiring pieces of science which have picked up a dearth of citations. The link between research quality (as opposed to “visibility”/”popularity”) and citation counts is very far from well-established.


      • Thank you for your comments Philip and for my part I also believe it is important to engage and discuss. We clearly have differences of opinion but it is important we test and challenge each other. I hope we both benefit from that. Anyway turning to some of your comments:

        I would dispute that what we are doing is adopting a one-size fits all approach – well, unless you wish to argue that by having an application process at all that is what we are doing. I don’t think that that is the fundamental point of this discussion. Yes, in EPSRC we ask all applicants to describe both national importance and pathways to impact but we also ask for their track record, research methodology, description of resources etc. What we do not do in our approach is pre-define what the national importance might be or how the pathways of impact should occur. We provide the freedom and flexibility for the applicant themselves to decribe these.

        Let me assure you that we do not see (economic and social) impact as being a pre-conditional driver of a research programme – although we would not wish to exclude such impact from being a driver either. On this last point I do hope my previous post pointed to the fact that research which is focused on tackling a specific challenge (e.g. in healthcare) may very well be high quality research. In passing I will mention that I know some people who would argue that all of MRC’s research is “challenge” or “mission” led and the number of Nobel prizes they have secured is testament to the quality of that research.

        When putting anapplication together I absolutely accept that we encourage applicants to think early on about why that research is important and to think how any benefits that may arise from a successful programme might be most effectively realised. We are looking for connectivity in the research and innovation ecosystem and to facilitate paths through that ecosystem. However, your desire for fundamental understanding can still be your motivation and driver. I would argue that almost by definition you will have to have a research idea in mind before you can explain the pathways to impact for it. The tail does not wag the dog as you put it.

        I understand that you (and others) object to writing an impact summary or a pathway to impact statement but that is very different from not being able to write one. I believe that they are not only possible to write but are also relevant for fundamental science. Have I any evidence of that? Well, how about all the applications we have received in say pure maths or atomic physics which have included them? And just for the record if it really is not possible to write one for a specific research project our guidance covers that too and as follows: “Impact has been described very broadly, and it is the expectation that everyone will be able to write something, but if you feel you can’t, then you can use the Pathways to Impact to explain your reasoning. Your arguments will be reviewed with the rest of the proposal”. I am pretty sure that opt out is hardly ever used as I would have heard otherwise if that were the case. While they may be the obvious examples, and as you know from your own personal experience, pathways to impact can include activities for public engagement or training for post docs. Inspiring the next generation and/or developing people for future careers are important aspects of impact and are as relevant to fundamental sciences as they are to more applied areas.

        Now I will turn to your point about citations and I must admit to being a little surprised by your views. I perhapos would agree with you that citations are not the complete picture of research quality. They are an indicator and as Alfred Korzybski put it: the map is not the territory. Nevertheless, they are widely accepted as a metric of research quality and if we are to have a rationale debate on this we do need to be able to establish some sort of evidence base. If not citations then what? REF scores (but is the unit of assessment meaningful for RCs to use)? Nobel prizes (not many of them so not really very discriminatory)? So here is a challenge or maybe an offer to you. Based on a question from an EPSRC Council member, a colleague and I are currently thinking about what other measures for research quality we might use to help describe our portfolio and/or assess UK international standing. We would be delighted to hear your thoughts and would be happy to meet to discuss this on the basis that blog posts are unlikely to get us very far. Just to manage expectations in any metrics the practicality and cost of getting the data will need to come into play.

        This postr is already now too long (again!) and at some point I would perhaps like to follow up on your comment that we have all those many excellent applications (and I agree with you on that) and what that means for us. Oh yes, your comment about the vacuity of excellence made Helen (my partner) and I laugh out loud. Thanks for that ;-)

        • Hi, Atti.

          Sorry for the very long delay in responding – I’ve been embroiled in another debate elsewhere of late (see and the PubPeer discussion thread to which Neuroskeptic refers in that blog post).

          “Let me assure you that we do not see (economic and social) impact as being a pre-conditional driver of a research programme – although we would not wish to exclude such impact from being a driver either”

          The problem is that when RCUK/EPSRC gives presentations like that described in the post above, and, I’ll say it again, recommends that impact should “inform the design of your research” then it’s very difficult to accept that little more than lip service is being paid to the idea of fundamental science.

          If EPSRC/RCUK really isn’t expecting impact to be a driver of a research programme, why not remove Tip #1 at this web page?:

          That’d be one, relatively painless, way to highlight a commitment to fundamental science.

          “Impact has been described very broadly, and it is the expectation that everyone will be able to write something, but if you feel you can’t, then you can use the Pathways to Impact to explain your reasoning. Your arguments will be reviewed with the rest of the proposal”.

          Instead of arguing the ‘philosophy’ of the impact agenda, I’m going to be relatively pragmatic for a change. Can you give me an example (or, preferably, more than one example) where a proposal has been submitted which included an impact statement where the PI did precisely what is suggested above? Was this proposal funded?

          If RCUK removed its recommendation that impact should “inform” the design of research, and if what you claim above – i.e. the completion of a Pathways to Impact statement which refused to ‘engage’ with the RCUK impact agenda – indeed did not adversely influence the funding of proposals, then this would have a huge bearing on my decision four years ago not to review, and therefore not to submit, proposals to EPSRC.

          If it’s not too late, I would be delighted to meet with you to discuss measures for research quality. Before we meet up, could I recommend this blog post from David Colquhoun (a bit of a hero of mine)?: How to get good science

          All the very best, Atti.

          Have a good weekend.


  11. Philip,

    This is an excellent piece about the state of the Impact agenda and its ramifications. The recent announcement of the new Doctoral Training Centres was, to me, one of the most worrisome developments of recent times. Simply looking at the titles of the 72 successful centres one can only identify a handful that might actually focus on basic science, with all the rest reading like sophisticated vocational training environments. Rumour has it that shortly after making this announcement the EPSRC told many if not all of the successful universities that they would need to cut 15% of their budget to help fund more centres. This is an appalling way to extract concessions from universities.

    I know of at least one unsuccessful CDT proposal that was unashamedly focused on basic research, with only a small amount of industrial support, and which received absolutely stellar external reviews. None of those reviews mentioned the industrial support issue, yet the feedback from the panel fixated on it. It certainly does appear that there was a litmus test applied to the proposals, and that, contrary to our general understanding of EPSRC policy, the panels did actually re-review the proposals.

    Coupling all of this with the REF Impact emphasis we have to worry how long it will be until universities start making hiring decisions based on potential for impact, leading to a situation in which all sorts of fundamental research will be viewed suspiciously.

    It is worth noting how the ERC has taken such a vastly different approach to research, rejecting outright the impact focus and using excellence as the key criterion for funding decisions. The UK has been very successful in obtaining ERC grants, and we can only expect the recent EPSRC developments to push people even further away from the UK funding councils and toward the EU bodies.

  12. Interesting to see that you have missed the argument that research trying hard to think of applications as an argument for a research project, makes for unfair competition for normal businesses and start-ups who are trying to do the same. A tax paying start-up or small business, should not have to worry about a state funded research project as a (government policy driven) competitor.

    • That’s a very, very good point indeed, Miw. Indeed, there are many in the Coalition (on both the Tory and Lib Dem sides) who could potentially argue that what you highlight is a good example of “crowding out” by the state of private sector innovation. (I also know of one university VC who would be keen to speak to you at length about this – see this paper !).

      I agree entirely with you – it was remiss of me not to discuss this aspect in the blog post.


      • Thanks for the interesting reference! It is strange to see universities being driven into a business or a VC style model. It takes more than great research to generate revenues from research. People with the necessary skills and interests, naturally tend to find employment in industry.
        People with great research skills, are needed in an environment where the increase of knowledge is important. In turn, increase of knowledge produces better students and better research teams for industry to liase with. In turn, industry should pay suffient taxes in order to enable the support of such pure research.

        • ” It takes more than great research to generate revenues from research.”

          I agree entirely. And very, very often the people who are best qualified to do that great research are not those best qualified to generate revenues from it. David Connell made exactly the same point in a letter in The Guardian yesterday:

          I’ve included David’s letter in full below.

          Aditya Chakrabortty’s article highlights one of the great myths of UK innovation policy, namely that the main source of successful innovative new businesses is academic inventions. This is no more true in Cambridge than it is in Boston or Silicon Valley. We cannot bank on Manchester’s graphene research being the exception. It is the alumni of great research universities that drive economic growth through the opportunity to use their expertise and creativity in businesses, in particular by solving problems and developing new products for demanding customers.

          By the standards of our most direct industrial competitors, the UK government underspends on research and development by about £4bn a year. However, the gap is not in university research spending but in the funding of “exploratory development”.

          This is the long and risky process of trying to make new technologies work in real-world applications. Germany has 22,000 scientists and engineers doing this in non-university Fraunhofer Institutes. The US funds this kind of work through R&D procurements, with small firms and not-for-profit R&D organisations playing a key role.

          We will only address the problem when we fully recognise what it is, rather than trying to get universities to play a role they are not designed for.

          David Connell

          Senior research fellow, UK Innovation Research Centre, University of Cambridge, and Chairman, Archipelago Technology

          Note the reference to the Fraunhofer Institutes. I made this point to Alexandra Saxon following her talk last week – in addition to the Fraunhofer Institutes, Germany has the various institutes of the Max Planck Society which focus on fundamental science. This type of delineation of applied and basic science is not only more honest, it makes a lot more economic sense as well.

  13. Thanks Philip, I think your comments completely resonate with what I felt was one of the main take home messages, re the push for acadmics to be much more responsive to business needs. I also think that in this country, for the most part, business doesn’t share its ‘problems’ hence we are being asked to make the case to businesses to allow us to work with them (which feels like the tail wagging the dog). Having considered your comments re the impact agenda I think there is actually a risk that this business agenda could work against the public engagement agenda or at least re-define public as ‘publics’ rather than the community and patient / carer involvement work that informs the way I conduct my research.

  14. Pardon me if I am ignorant of many of these proceedings within the UK since I come from Singapore (a knowledge-based economy). Recently, I have decided to take more notice in funding or support for fundamental research from government agencies or otherwise, since I aim to be a researcher. Having gone through many articles revolving around the validity of funding science research, publicly or otherwise, I am extremely worried as across the world, success of research across all fields are almost completely determined by marketability, scalability and manufacturability. After reading up on the research funding situation in the UK, and having compared it with Singapore’s National Research Foundation’s framework for research funding, I am extremely disgusted to witness how blatantly honest governments around the world are about the industrialisation and commercialisation of scientific research.

    Later this year, I will commence studying Physics and Mathematics in university with the end goal in mind being a researcher (hence, pardon me for any ignorance displayed within this passion-driven comment since I am not even an undergraduate yet). I am starting to worry since many universities are now pairing up with multinational corporations to ensure commercial viability in their research products and ideas. What if, ten years down the road, curiosity is no longer the driving factor behind research, applied or otherwise? Proof-of-concept grants and being forced to list down near-to-market socio-economic impacts sends a wrong message to young people striving for research excellence. I already see many of my peers entering science courses and graduating with the mindset that research IS the corporate world. Many, in the future, might regret ever starting research in the first place, and they regret, because they went into research with the right mindset: an unquenchable thirst for gaining an insight into the world upon which we thrive.

    Sure, we require men in suits and shiny shoes, i.e. corporation, to give us their support, and to remind us once in a while to watch out for our science spending. After all, it would be unreasonable for researchers, out of curiosity, to blow a large sum of money at a high frequency. Those expensive ideas can wait, no argument there… they can WAIT, but the governments and corporations are not even asking or telling researchers to wait for the opportune moment to splurge on bigger projects. They need to see a market base out of everything. This has started becoming a global trend. I must make it plainly clear that I do not despise corporations, industry or any government in particular, but if this continues, I doubt there will be anything left to distinguish universities from corporations.

  15. Jeremy,

    Thank you for your comment. You show an impressive level of insight for someone who has yet to embark on their undergraduate degree. I agree entirely with your points, as you might expect, and because I collaborate with researchers from IMRE in Singapore – as part of the AtMol network, – I know how much of a drive towards short term commercialisation there is for research in your country.

    You may be interested in the following, an interview from six years ago:

    You’ll see that I share your concerns, but you expressed them rather more eloquently.

    I have sent a link to your comment to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) because I think it’s important to see just how demoralising – or, as I put it in the title of the post, spirit-crushing – this focus on outsourcing corporate R&D to universities can be for the next generation of scientists.

    All the very best,