Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Driven to the Shallows

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Driven to the Shallows

Article excerpt

Stephen Banks worries that the impact agenda may bury the 'deep knowledge' we ought to treasure

The recently published Stern report on the future of the research excellence framework endorsed the inclusion of impact within the factors to be assessed. But while I have spent much of my working life in the "real world" with which the impact agenda is designed to encourage engagement, I worry greatly that the approach is misguided.

After graduating in ancient Near Eastern history in 1984, I worked for the Home Office. There, we fretted over the threats facing the UK, Irish and Palestinian terrorists chief among them. To my knowledge, no one ever mentioned Islamic fundamentalism.

Nor, I think, could that threat have been foreseen. Even so, ever since it became apparent, any number of "experts" have stepped forward to pen weighty tomes on terrorism, the Taliban, Islamic State and so on. Some are undoubtedly excellent, yet mere opportunism often reigns. Some authors' claims to authority rest on geographic myopia: the idea that a stay in Israel, for instance, qualifies them to write about Iran 1,000 miles away. And one suspects that much of the genre has been produced in ignorance of the regional languages.

Many of the authors are journalists; but, egged on by the impact agenda, plenty of academics have rushed out similarly flimsy tomes. All to the good, you might argue: university research should address itself to the challenges of our times. But we should be careful. There is a danger that academics succumb to the fatal embrace of those interested in interrogating the world in no greater depth than is necessary to fill the headline of a red-top newspaper.

In truth, the value of academia often lies in its ability to keep aloof from the fashions of the day. The deep knowledge thereby created is our inheritance from the past and our legacy to the future. We have been told that society has had enough of experts, but perhaps the problem lies not in the notion of the expert but to whom we attribute that label.

As the Chilcot report has just confirmed, the UK recently involved itself in a war of regime change in Iraq with all the sophistication of a navvy trying to adjust a complex watch with a sledgehammer. …

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