An intriguing and potentially encouraging story was published over at the Research Fortnight website yesterday. It appears that the research councils’ Pathways To Impact process, which mandates academics to consider the broad societal repercussions and applications of their research (beyond its scientific/academic influence) at the grant application stage, is to be imminently discontinued. Here are the opening paragraphs from Sophie Inge‘s article:
UK Research and Innovation has set out plans to scrap separate impact sections from all grant applications as part of a drive to reduce bureaucracy, Research Professional News can reveal.
In an internal memo circulated among senior research council staff this week, seen by Research Professional News, the funder said its executive committee agreed at a meeting in December 2019 to remove the requirement for the Pathways to Impact attachment and Summary Impact Statement from applications submitted through the Je-S system.
I have had significant issues with Pathways To Impact over the years since its introduction (in 2009), as summarised in this post and this Times Higher Education article (among too many other posts and polemics. I was tediously persistent on the impact issue — to the extent that I did not submit grant proposals to the research councils for a number of years — as it cut to the very core of why I became an academic scientist.) As described in that THE article, however, I became somewhat less “militant” about the impact agenda when it was clear that, to the research councils’ credit, commercial application was not the only route to a successful Pathways To Impact case.
I very much share James Wilsdon‘s suspicions in the tweet below that the haste with which the Pathways To Impact requirement is being retired is not entirely unrelated to Dominic Cummings’ oft-voiced commitment to rolling back bureaucracy, especially with regard to science and innovation: “no micromanagement [and] bureaucratic cancers treated like the enemy”. In many ways this is to be applauded, although I share the concerns of many of my fellow academics that Cummings has a rather reactionary and cliched view of just how science works, as described in this perceptive and incisive post by Dorothy Bishop(Psychology, Oxford). The “lone genius” model, while making for a compelling narrative that resonates with both scientific and non-scientific audiences, is very far from the reality of how the vast majority of scientific advances are made.
The Tucker-esque mythos surrounding Cummings is similarly a less than entirely realistic framing of the man; the breathless sycophancy of the more excitable Tory faithful can often raise a chuckle, as can the theatrical character of some of the Chief Special Advisor’s more “out there” pronouncements. (Uri Geller’s response to Cummings’ call for “weirdos and misfits” was perhaps not quite the calibre of applicant that the great man had in mind.)
But we mock Cummings at our peril; he’s smart (just not in the sartorial sense (but then, those in glass houses…)), driven, and clearly not averse to doing his homework on the issues with the UK’s science and innovation base. That Cummings had the wherewithal to read and digest Richard Jones’ authoritative and detailed posts on UK science, productivity, and manufacturing — and cite them on more than one occasion — is enough alone to convince me that there’s a willingness to adopt at least a reasonably informed approach to research funding and policy.
This will, of course, be refracted through Cummings’particularly rose-tinted and overly traditional view of scientific progress, but his clear enthusiasm for fundamental curiosity-driven research is certainly going to be welcomed by those of us who have argued for many years for the difficult-to-quantify value of basic science. Quite how Cummings will ensure a balanced approach to funding of applied R&D, industry-academia partnerships, and the type of unfettered exploratory science he champions — and how this might shape UKRI’s funding policies and processes over the next few years — remains to be seen.
And on the subject of balance, while Cummings’ strong case of STEM envy is flattering for us physicists, one upshot of the “Pathways To Impact” process over the last decade has been its contribution to a healthy — if, admittedly, sometimes rather opportunistic — erosion of boundaries between STEM, arts, and humanities disciplines. It would be a great shame if Cummings’ clear preference for maths and physics over an education in the humanities (despite his own 1st class honours degree in Ancient and Modern History) reversed the progress made in bridging that long-standing “two cultures” divide…