Beki Grinter

History and Impact

In academia, academic management on March 16, 2010 at 7:33 pm

The Royal Society is celebrating it’s 350th anniversary. To coincide with a series of exhibits about scientific advances in the past, the Royal Society is also taking the opportunity to reflect on the future of British Science. Here’s an excerpt from the report.

From Faraday to the iPod

Michael Faraday was a leading light of 19th century science. He began his career as secretary to Sir Humphry Davy, himself a formidable chemist and inventor. Faraday then joined the Royal Institution, where his experiments allowed him to elucidate the principles of electromagnetism and build the first dynamo. Explaining a discovery to then Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone, Faraday was asked, ’But after all, what use is it?’ He famously, but perhaps apocryphally, replied, ’Why sir, there is every probability you will be able to tax it’.

Faraday’s ideas were taken forward by James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and numerous others, including Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg. Fert and Grünberg received the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics for work on giant magnetoresistance, showing that tiny changes in magnetism can generate large changes in electrical resistance. Their 1988 discovery revolutionised the way that computers store information. The minuscule hard drives inside laptops and the earliest iPods would have been impossible without Faraday’s pioneering work more than 150 years earlier.

I’m not entirely against the narratives of impact that permeate the academy. We tell each other, we should strive for impact in our research, it’s more than the production of knowledge, it’s impact. But, I think Faraday provides a useful reminder: not everything that is discovered now will have its full impact in a short time frame. Perhaps impact should be treated like the history that it is, something that can not be assessed until sufficient time elapses. Early judgements likely to fall short and potentially be imbued with the personal orientations of those who make the assessments.

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  1. it does seem like a good reminder.

    on the other hand, a vanishingly small amount of what we do in CS or applied CS research is as fundamental as what they did in ye olde days. the closer-in the research, the more reasonable the question of nearer-term impact.

    part of the push behind evaluation of impact is that one must, at the end of the day, evaluate work (and workers). hiring, firing, funding – resources are limited. this does lead to an inevitable and unfortunate skew toward the nearer-term types of impact which, as you say, are not always the most valuable types.

    • I do know what you mean. I have a thought that academia might be able to choose somewhat differently than industrial research… because the missions are, somewhat, different…

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