Research funding myopia

The British Government, through its higher education funding council, is currently considering the use of socio-economic impact factors when deciding the relative rankings of university departments in terms of their research quality, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), held about every five years.   These impact factors are intended to measure the social or economic impact of research activities in the period of the RAE (ie, within 5 years). Since the RAE is used to allocate funds for research infrastructure to British universities these impact factors, if implemented, will thus indirectly decide which research groups and which research will be funded.    Some academic reactions to these proposals are here and here.
From the perspective of the national economy and technological progress, these proposals are extremely misguided, and should be opposed by us all.    They demonstrate a profound ignorance of where important ideas come from, of when and where and how they are applied, and of where they end up.  In particular, they demonstrate great ignorance of the multi-disciplinary nature of most socio-economically-impactful research.
One example will demonstrate this vividly.  As more human activities move online, more tasks can be automated or semi-automated.    To enable this, autonomous computers and other machines need to be able to communicate with one using shared languages and protocols, and thus much research effort in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence these last three decades has focused on designing languages and protocols for computer-to-computer communications.  These protocols are used in various computer systems already and are likely to be used in future-generation mobile communications and e-commerce systems.
Despite its deep technological nature, research in this area draws fundamentally on past research and ideas from the Humanities, including:

  • Speech Act Theory in the Philosophy of Language (ideas due originally to Adolf Reinach 1913, John Austin 1955, John Searle 1969 and Jurgen Habermas 1981, among others)
  • Formal Logic (George Boole 1854, Clarence Lewis 1910, Ludwig Wittgenstein 1922, Alfred Tarski 1933, Saul Kripke 1959, Jaakko Hintikka 1962, etc), and
  • Argumentation Theory (Aristotle c. 350 BC, Stephen Toulmin 1958, Charles Hamblin 1970, etc).

Assessment of the impacts of research over five years is laughable when Aristotle’s work on rhetoric has taken 2300 years to find technological application.   Even Boole’s algebra took 84 years from its creation to its application in the design of electronic circuits (by Claude Shannon in 1938).  None of the humanities scholars responsible were doing their research to promote technologies for computer interaction or to support e-commerce, and most would not have even understood what these terms mean.  Of the people I have listed, only John Searle (who contributed to the theory of AI), and Charles Hamblin (who created one of the first computer languages, GEORGE, and who made major contributions to the architecture of early computers, including invention of the memory stack), had any direct connection to computing.   Only Hamblin was afforded an obituary by a computer journal (Allen 1985).
None of the applications of these ideas to computer science were predicted, or even predictable.  If we do not fund pure research across all academic disciplines without regard to its potential socio-economic impacts, we risk destroying the very source of the ideas upon which our modern society and our technological progress depend.
M. W. Allen [1985]: “Charles Hamblin (1922-1985)”. The Australian Computer Journal, 17(4): 194-195.

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