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True Impact

Throughout the world, the ideologeme of effectiveness in science policy and research funding is touching the very foundations of modern societies in a way similar to populism. But research can only have true impact when anticipated short-term benefits are not allowed to become the general criterion for funding decisions.

As the new year begins, I would like to reflect on a controversial notion that occupied much of the science policy discourse last year: the impact of research. To some, this may seem ivory towerish, given the problems and concerns we are facing today. You might ask: Wouldn’t it be nice if there were no bigger issues to worry about? Doesn’t almost the whole world, not just research, seem to be headed for serious trouble? Isn’t the democratic constitutional state under threat from autocratic and populist desires for power? Aren’t we debating no less than open society and its – our – liberal ways of living?

This does, in fact, appear to be the case – and what’s more, we may be not at the end, but only at the beginning of these dramatic changes with their plentiful cause for concern. However, the two things have more to do with each other than you might think. The instrumentalism of an economistic and reductionist discourse of research, constrained by the imperative of “Impact!”, is shaking the pillars of pluralistic society and scholarship in a similar fashion to mushrooming populisms with their manifest aversion to expertise and reflexivity.

The research policy watchword “impact” functions just like the populist rhetoric along the lines of “There’s no law against saying that!”. It seems to presuppose a vehement, methodical argument in favour of research with no useful purpose; as if truth and impact were opposites. This is nonsense. No one can seriously object if good research has real impact, when it richly yields societal impact in as many ways as possible – be it social, economic or cultural. It would likewise be foolish to oppose this, as this would play straight into the hands of populist opposition to research.

Impact – yes or no? This is not the question. The question is whether it is advisable and conducive to the societal benefit of research when decisions about its funding and institutionalisation are generally made on the basis of whether it can claim to produce direct impact in the near future.

A trend in this unhelpful direction was noticeable throughout 2016. In the UK, the government’s impact imperative pushed humanities and social sciences research into a severe legitimacy and funding crisis even before Brexit shifted the coordinates for UK research. The funding policy of the European Commission shows a degree of regression from a broad approach that systematically integrates knowledge-driven research to a reductionist concept which, at best, poorly distinguishes between research funding and obsolete forms of industrial subsidisation. And in the USA, the sparse statements of the new president also point to a research funding approach geared entirely towards short-term economic relevance – and hard times for knowledgedriven research, the social sciences, and even the geosciences, lately denounced to the status of soft sciences (as this might be a way of allowing global change research to dwindle away).

The unsuitability of the reduced instrumentalism of such simplistic notions of impact as a general criterion for research funding is obvious. The weakness of the concept is plain to see: the very use of impact as a positive value category implies a clear distinction between positive and negative, desirable and undesirable effects of research. Here the ideologeme already runs into massive problems of definition, leading us, for example, into the dual-use problem.

Just as relevant is the question of how the future impact of future research should be measured now, especially when indicators of employment and economic growth are not available, or are unsuitable, as useful key figures. Then there is the question of how quickly research must prove useful – or how slowly the impact is allowed to develop. There is no indicator model which provides an easy answer to these or the many associated questions – for the simple reason that questions of indicators are ultimately questions of power. Might that which is supported as effective in one political context be regarded as ineffective, undesirable and therefore undeserving of funding in another?

No less fundamental than these weaknesses is the readily understood fact that a simple focus on impact can scarcely do justice to the very internal logic and meaning of research, especially knowledge-driven research. It neither allows the necessary leeway for the unplannable and unanticipated, without which there cannot truly be any novelty of scientific knowledge, nor recognises the possibility of  legitimate failure. Above all, however, it triggers a bidding war of ever new promises, ever bolder assurances of scientific solutions to problems, a spiral of demand and promise which does not enhance the legitimacy of science and society’s trust in research, but rather seriously undermines it.

The unthinking compulsion to sell research impact in advance is harmful. And it is harmful in a way not dissimilar to populism: in both cases, science and the humanities and their pluralism are notionally and conceptually negated; in both cases, they are prevented from having true impact. So if everything depends on the proper unfolding of research and thus the  opportunities open to it for effectiveness and impact, this must not be made the criterion for funding decisions as a universal compulsion.

So far, German research has remained largely unscathed by the type of impact ideology criticised here. Yet even in Germany, the funding and management of research on the basis of quantitative figures has become more commonplace; conference rooms and journals have been filled with critical discussion of this “indicator-based research” in recent months.

Nevertheless, the checks and balances of organised research and what is, in this respect, on the whole an astute science and funding policy ensure the productive complementarity of those forms of research organisation and funding which legitimately make assumptions of social, economic and cultural relevance a key decision-making criterion and those which – like the DFG – take into account only the quality of research, regardless of impact.

The extent to which German science policy and research funding represent an enviously admired exception compared with many parts of the world is demonstrated by the Excellence Strategy, which was launched in 2016. This programme will provide billions of euros in additional long-term support to top-level university research, with exceptional flexibility in a competitive, open-topic format and with funding decisions based on scientific judgement. In relation to last year’s disturbing events and alarming  developments, it provides an optimistic counterpoint.

Professor Dr. Peter Strohschneider is the President of the DFG.