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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Ruskin and the RAE

I'm just back from a short break to Coniston in the Lake District, where the art critic and social critic John Ruskin ended his days. There I began to read Unto This Last, the work he considered his most important. It opens,

Among the delusions which at different periods have possessed themselves of the minds of large masses of the human race, perhaps the most curious - certainly the least creditable - is the modern soi-disant science of political economy, based on the idea that an advantageous code of social action may be determined irrespectively of the influence of social affection.
Besides being beautifully written, it has been extremely influential. Proust and Tolstoy, Gandhi and Attlee all thought very highly of it. And yet while it was being published in instalments during 1860, it was lambasted by critics - 'the world simply refuses to be preached to by a mad governess' - to the extent that the magazine proprietor felt forced to curtail publication of the full series of essays. Fortunately, Ruskin had the wherewithal to publish it as a book in 1862, although even then not all of the thousand copies printed had been sold a decade later.

Back home, I find that my doctoral supervisor, Donald Gillies, has written a piece entitled Lessons from the History and Philosophy of Science regarding the Research Assessment Exercise. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), for those of you who don't know it, is an enormous piece of bureaucratic machinery whose function is to measure the quality and quantity of the research output of British University departments in order to calculate the level of research funding due in coming years. Gillies offers us a powerful critique of the RAE by means of some counterfactual scenarios of the kind: if the RAE had been in place in the time of Wittgenstein, Frege, Semmelweiss, Copernicus, their research would not have been funded. For Gillies the RAE has been devised to target the wrong kind of error. The primary aim of any reasonable funding system must be to ensure that every first rate researcher is funded. However, the RAE seems designed only to prevent bad research being done. In the effort to ensure that only good work is supported, it promotes a cautiousness whose effect is to obstruct the production of important and original ideas.

Gillies resorts to history as we cannot tell so close to the event what impact the RAE has had on the originality of research since it was introduced under Margaret Thatcher's government in 1986. This allows him diplomatically to omit telling us his views on the state of philosophy over the past couple of decades. Those wishing to take a brief glimpse of contemporary English-language philosophy could do worse than drop in on this month's Philosophical Carnival. If other disciplines face a difficult task reckoning how all of its branches are faring, you may imagine from the breadth of style and content what this is like for philosophy. It would seem a reasonable conjecture, then, that deviations from acknowledged philosophical orthodoxies would not be rewarded.

But, as the range of disciplines treated by Gillies suggests, this problem is not confined to philosophy. A piece written by the mathematician, Ronnie Brown, makes some very similar points. To take one line from The methodology of the RAE? as an example:

In mathematics, one can believe that Galois, Cantor, Grassman, ... , would have done badly in any supposed contemporary RAE.

Although Ruskin published prodigiously, in view of the reception of 'Unto This Last', a similar analysis might apply to him, especially as he made contributions to many fields. These works were strongly interconnected in his eyes, but the different RAE panels would have thought otherwise.

If, as Ruskin wrote, "All books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time", the RAE may be characterised as trying to ensure that the books of the hour are competently written. But in that it stands in the way of the writing of a single book of all time it is rightly condemned.


Anonymous said...

As you probably know, David, textbooks don't count for the RAE. One consequence of this in computer science is that the leading British researchers and those aspiring to do leading research, no longer write textbooks in CS. The result is that the majority of current UK textbooks are written by people who do not do, or do not aspire to do, research. The long-term consequences of this for British research and teaching in CS can readily be imagined.

May 03, 2006 9:39 AM  

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