13 July 2013

Knowledge, Power and the Research Excellence Framework

Far beyond the arcane reaches of the Basel capital requirements, touched on in my last post, lies the swampy territory of the Research Excellence Framework, its very name bringing a whiff of fascistic thought control and striking terror into the heart of the nation's academics. Measuring research excellence is the sort of activity that creates an appealing soundbite for politicians of the ilk of Michael Gove but rapidly evades the mind, escaping into a realm of subjectivity and confusion, once it becomes an actual policy.

Thus have we, who labour in the mines of knowledge with sweated brow, attempted to resist the suggestion that there is anything meaningful about assessing a certain research paper as be 'worth' 3.25 or 2.75 according to criteria such as rigour, originality and significance. Sadly, it is often the papers that are particularly heavy on meaningless theory, or that are of the politically unchallenging variety that should find their way into the Journal of Overnight Discoveries, that score highest in these exercises.

The fact that the research evaluation system works against radical work has been a longstanding prejudice held by those of us who believe that quality cannot be enumerated and is unlikely to be clearly apparent until 50 years after a paper has been published, but at last we have some evidence to support our case. In the field of economics Fred Lee, professor of economics at the University of Missouri, has analysed the way in which economics papers are ranked and reached some disturbing conclusions. He has unearthed a self-referential and self-reproducing elite of economists who review each others' work, publish each others' work, and largely agree in terms of their conclusions about how the economy works.

As Lee correctly points out, this sort of groupthink amongst economists is a prime explanation for the disastrous nature of the financial crisis in 2007/8 and the fact that it was 'not foreseen'. But these charmed circles also work to control research funding, since work that is published in the most highly ranked journals, those with a 4* rating (yes, really) will ensure that their authors receive three times more research funding than those that only receive a 3* rating. Since the Cambridge Journal of Economics, the highest ranking economics journal that includes heterodox work and the site of Lee's paper, only scores a 3, heterodox economists are limited terms of the time they can spend writing and publishing and are unlikely to obtain jobs in the highest ranked universities.

Lee and his co-authors reach some startling conclusions, arguing that the control of the economics discipline is no less than an attempt to eliminate alternative views: 'the going concern model of UKeconomics puts into focus what others have identified as cultural, political, language, or social genocide of the "other"'. When in this case that 'other' might be the suggestion that capitalism can never be sustainable or that a debt-based money system will inevitably lead to global injustice, it becomes evident that this is a debate that needs to find its way beyond the walls of the academy and into the public domain.
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