Even in the hard sciences, the relationship between original research and commercial exploitation is usually indirect and long-term. More than half a century passed between Arthur C. Clarke’s visionary conception of the communication potential of orbital satellites and the massive economic impact of the manufacture and sale of GPS devices to individual motorists. Medical research, too, has a long history of vast sums of money being spent on journeys up blind alleys, with new breakthroughs often coming by chance in quite unexpected places. Cyclosporin, the immunosuppressive agent that revolutionised organ transplantation, was discovered as part of a general screening programme, not through a research project specifically addressing the problem of graft rejection. Medical history is full of stories of this kind.
DIUS, the new department charged with overseeing the hugely expanded enterprise of higher education in this country, is less than a year old and yet it has already developed a reputation for even greater meddling than its predecessors did. Of course there is a prime duty to account for the expenditure of taxpayers’ money, but a much more subtle style of accountancy is required. There is something especially inappropriate about the attempt to quantify the “value” and “impact” of work in the humanities in economic terms, since the very nature of the humanities is to address the messy, debatable and unquantifiable but essentially human dimensions of life — such as history, beauty, imagination, faith, truth, goodness, justice and freedom. The only test of a philosophical argument, an historical hypothesis or an aesthetic judgement is time. A long period of time, not that of a “funding cycle” determined by the quangocracy.