Academics fear the value of knowledge for its own sake is diminishing

Is"useful" knowledge the only knowledge worth knowing? shutterstock

A climate of “anti-intellectualism”, faltering levels of trust in “experts” and an era of “post-truth” provides a rather dreary depiction of the state of academia today.

Compound this with the reorganisation of higher education – where universities are run more like businesses – along with the politics of austerity, and it may be little surprise that the sector is said to be in crisis.

This is all coming at a time when there is an increased expectation for academics to be more accountable for their research by evidencing its economic and societal benefits – known as impact.

This expectation has received mixed responses from many people working in universities. At first, some academics crudely dismissed impact as a nasty government idea. Many researchers could not see how their work could align with it and, fearing a loss of freedom some claimed “science is dead”. This was even accompanied by the arrival of a hearse outside the offices of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK – sending out the message loud and clear that the impact agenda was problematic and unwelcome. All of which reflected deep emotional and moral concerns within academia about the over management and politicisation of knowledge.

But on the flip side, impact has been welcomed by others for the opportunity it provides academics to make their work more visible and accessible.

The impact agenda

To find out more, our research looked at academics’ emotions in response to the impact agenda – both in the UK and Australia. As part of this, we carried out interviews with 51 professors and senior career-level academics.

Our findings confirm that while pockets of the academic community are deeply concerned about an impact agenda – both in terms of funding and assessment – these reactions do not reflect a lack of willing or sense of duty. Rather academics want to see disciplinary diversity respected and this reflected in terms of research policy.

What makes research valuable? Pexels

The academics we spoke to expressed a range of emotions regarding this increased focus on impact. These ranged from distrust to acceptance, and from excitement, to love and hate. For every academic who spoke of despair, a balance of commitment and even love for their work (and its potential for impact) was also expressed.

As one politics lecturer said:

It’s sort of where my heart lies – quite deliberately and specifically working to apply the research that you are doing to real world political and social challenges across domains of theory and practice.

An archaeology professor also expressed similar sentiments:

We are paid from the public purse and we should be doing research – we are ridiculously privileged to work on whatever we like and it’s wonderful.

To bend your mind a little bit to the fact that some of the stuff you do does have benefits outside the academy, and to put measures in place to make that happen, it’s a minor tax.

Justifying your job

But despite these positive sentiments, academics we spoke to also expressed concerns over their workloads and career security.

Others feared losing credibility and worried about being “exposed” or losing control of their work through public engagement. Though this is perhaps indicative of a lack of skill and confidence in this area. As well as a greater need for academics to understand how to communicate their research appropriately as opposed to “tokenistically”.

Academics also felt the impact agenda challenged them to justify their existence and their academic freedom – something which was felt on a very personal level. A music professor explained:

I don’t feel happy with it, and do I need to justify my job? How many levels do I have to justify it?

Useful knowledge

During the interviews, words such as “scary”, “threat”, “nervousness” and “worry” were used, as many spoke of their “frustrations”, “suspiciousness” and even “resentment” of the focus on impact.

Academics reported feeling sad, unhappy, jealous, anxious, demoralised and disillusioned by the impact agenda. And this sense of vulnerability seemed to be further exacerbated by risks of professional penalisation from their academic peers.

Who gets to decides what’s useful knowledge and what isn’t? Pexels

But it was clear from talking with these academics that these criticisms do not come from a place of entitlement or frustration at having to account for their work. Instead, this was in response to fears about the changing nature of their role and concerns for those whose work does not naturally align with what’s considered to be “useful”. And this increasing pressure to focus on impact at all costs could well damage academic morale, as one theatre professor described:

This agenda reinforces the notion that the only valuable thing in life is money. That is deeply worrying.

Ultimately, our research shows that most academics feel a duty to share their work, they want to make a difference, and they want to communicate their findings to wider audiences. But many are still uncomfortable with this idea of having to “sell” their work, as well as the preoccupation with what is “useful” – because after all how do you really decide what is or isn’t useful to society?

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