I have just posted the following comment on the LMS consultation blog on impact and the REF. At risk of boring my readers who have heard all this already, I am posting it here as well.
I will say briefly why I think that HEFCE’s rules for impact in the REF are on balance bad for mathematics. First, mathematics does have impact; second, this is not captured by HEFCE’s mechanism; and third, this will have an effect.
As preamble I should make clear that, since our research is funded by the taxpayer, it is entirely reasonable for the funders to have some influence on what we do. [I happen to believe that putting pressure on us to do “impactful” mathematics will actually harm the UK’s competitiveness in the long term; funders should take note of arguments for this. But that is another matter.]
First, mathematics does have impact. Everyone has their favourite examples of this. Mine are application of complex numbers to electrical circuit theory and hence to power transmission over long distances; application of number theory to public-key cryptography and hence to Internet commerce; and third, application of linear algebra to the Google page-rank algorithm, without which finding information on the Web would be much more difficult.
I think it is very important that we have good presentations of case studies on the impact of mathematics readily available for use in debates with funders and politicians. Several people, including Chris Rodger, Colva Roney-Dougal, and Peter Rowlett, have told me that they have such material. But it would be good to have a page which would come high on any Google search for “impact of mathematics”, with detailed descriptions of some and pointers to others. Chris Rodger maintains the CADCOM collection (featuring applications of discrete mathematics) at http://www.dms.auburn.edu/~rodgec1/cadcom/
My three examples make very clear that the impact of mathematics is a long-term process. HEFCE rules do not allow this. The allowed timeframe of 15 years is absurdly small; the definition of impact (economic and social, not even allowing academic impact as RCUK do) is far too narrow; both the research having the impact and the commercialisation of it must occur in the same institution. It seems clear that very little mathematics will have any impact at all on these rules.
Does this matter?
I have heard two arguments made. First, if mathematics units of assessment score essentially zero for impact, this won’t matter since everybody will still be equal. This is wrong for two reasons. First, it will depress the overall grades and give the impression that UK mathematics is in poor shape. Second, HEFCE assured RAE panels in 1996 that their decisions would have no effect on the total pot of money in their subject; when the funding formula was revealed, this was simply not true. So we cannot trust them.
Another argument is that, since you cannot take impact with you (a department can claim impact for a researcher’s work, if the other conditions are met, even if that researcher is now somewhere else), this will damp down the “transfer market”. This is a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. Departments need to make appointments, since people die, retire or leave; this is simply another way of penalising us.
Finally, if we think it is bad now, worse is to come. HEFCE explain that, as a result of comments from the community [including a petition signed by nearly 30000 academics, though they fail to mention this], they reduced the contribution of impact to the assessment from 25% to 20%, but they “intend to increase [this proportion] in subsequent exercises”.