A Scottish professor’s comments about the cost and dubious benefit of some university research has caused a storm in academic circles.
Writing for The Scotsman, Professor John Haldane, director of the Centre of Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at St Andrews, said: "What is pursued under the heading of research, at any rate in the arts, humanities and social sciences, is often of dubious worth, being merely the accumulation of knowledge… without proper regard to the goal of integrated understanding.
"The growing mass of researchers may have become a drag upon, and even an obstacle to, the pursuit of the primary purpose of universities, namely education. It impedes the effort to put students first and consumes vast sums of public and private funding.”
His article was criticised by University and College Union general secretary, Sally Hunt, who told The Journal: “History has taught us that some of the biggest breakthroughs have come from speculative research and it is wrong to try and measure projects purely on economic potential.
"Academic research benefits all of society and we shouldn’t be looking to reduce it to a series of ‘impact indicators’.”
A spokesman for the UCU pointed out that Albert Einstein famously said: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”
Danielle Moore, senior communications manager of The Economic and Social Research Council also defended the research carried out throughout the UK.
Ms Moore told The Journal: “At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
"We support the highest quality research through a process of peer review, train the researchers of the future, and make sure that they have the methods, data and other resources they need to produce deep insights into economic and social questions.
"Social science research influences and contributes to government white papers, policy debates and reports, as well as the work of NGOs, businesses and international organisations such as the World Bank and the UN.”
The storm came in the week that two historians, Dr Terry Gourvish, director of the business history unit at the London School of Economics, and Dr Richard Coopey, senior lecturer in history at the University of Wales, were granted £290,758 by the ESRC for a three-year project to study the financing of pop music from the era of Elvis to punk.