Back in the summer, John Holmwood, the current BSA President, sent me an email about impact and research ethics. Various contingencies have got in the way of discussing his concerns – but they are important.
John’s argument, in essence, is that the implications of the UK impact agenda for research ethics have been overlooked, and should be a matter of concern for university review committees. Decisions about all UK public research funding, and a good deal of foundation funding, increasingly focus on the likely impact of the research. Proposals are strengthened by evidence that research participants will be involved as co-producers. However, this raises important issues about deception in research, since the intended goal may not be shared by the participants. If they are fully informed, they may decline to serve as co-producers and undermine the project: if they are not fully informed, they are victims of deception – and ethical review committees should be as concerned about this as they are about covert research. In fact, they should be more concerned, since covert research may properly be undertaken for disinterested scientific purposes whereas impact-oriented research always has a normative agenda determined by the funder. John wonders whether this issue is receiving proper attention from university review processes because of the drive to obtain funding of any kind in a period of declining resources.
This poses questions about the nature and purpose of the social sciences that go back to their nineteenth century foundation. To a greater or lesser degree, all were based on some vision of a contribution to human welfare, even if this vision were decidedly partial. Economics came to identify a good society with efficiency, sociology with social justice, psychology with concordance to human nature and so on. As later generations pointed out, these contributions contained a wealth of unexamined assumptions, values and elitist biases. The world governed by reason and objective evidence proved to be less successful in practice than in theory. Markets failed, the social problems of the poor were entangled with the disciplinary activities of the powerful, and the fundamentals of human nature encoded a wealth of racism, sexism and classism. Nevertheless, many justifications for the support of the social sciences continue to rest on their implicit or explicit claim to contribute to the delivery of a better world.
This may be a necessary argument but, as Martin Nicolaus, a radical sociologist of the 1960s, memorably put it, the result is that the eyes of social scientists turn downwards and their palms turn upwards. We do not have to share Nicolaus’s revolutionary perspective to think that the result may not necessarily be good for either science or society. It distorts the scientific understanding of human societies because the questions, and hence the answers, are substantially predetermined. It does not benefit society because the inconvenient truths that might emerge from a more disinterested approach remain buried. It encourages the emergence of an inverted opposite, evident in some public sociology, where genuine concerns are dismissed as just so much false consciousness.
The impact agenda, however, introduces a peculiar twist in that it invites users to collude in their own subordination. Nicolaus lambasted the US sociological establishment for their indifference to the marginalized and the socially excluded, except as the targets of surveillance, whether quantitative or qualitative. Impact requires social scientists to co-opt victims in order to better understand how they may be kept in their place, or at least made less inconvenient.
Unfortunately, a critical response to impact does not sit well with the times. Some social sciences have not forgotten their own history – much as neophiliac funders might wish them to. However, flourishing new disciplines like behavioural economics and social marketing deny any responsibility to reflect on the ethics of their own practice: they merely implement their client’s wishes – eyes down and palms up. The lack of concern by university ethics committees, which troubles Holmwood, further confirms that their real function is as an adjunct to performance and reputation management rather than as an expression of scientific values.
Could it be any different in a publicly-funded and minutely-regulated university system like that of the UK, where every investment requires a utilitarian justification? Social sciences are funded as tools of policy rather than as prerequisites for a functioning democracy. The real public good argument, though, might be about the importance to a dynamic and innovative society of free inquiry and debate, about a diversity and plurality of ideas, perspectives and inquiries that would challenge and stimulate citizens and their representatives to think beyond the tramlines of impact. Ironically, Herbert Spencer would have understood this better than most – and would not have thought that a monoculture of public universities was the best way to achieve it.