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January 3, 2011

Impact!

Posted by David Corfield

Here in the UK we assess the research capabilities of our university departments every so many years via the RAE. What’s new for the next assessment exercise in 2014 (renamed REF) is an emphasis on impact. We have already seen this idea introduced in research funding, where one must explain what effects our research may have outside of academia.

The trouble for philosophy is how to fit into a model that seems to have been drawn from other disciplines. In the natural sciences, you may have carried out some biochemical research leading to a pharmaceutical intervention for a disease. In the socal sciences, research on gangs or teenage pregnancies might lead to new legislation and policy changes. Both of these show clear impact, but what can we hope for from philosophy?

Impact must take place outside of academia, so that influences on non-traditional academic partners cannot be counted as such. In view of the fact that it is already out of the ordinary for philosophers to work with other academics, I think this is unfortunate. Imagine that I could tell a tale of my philosophical work inspiring the setting up of this blog, which in turn helped to bring about the flourishing of online research collaboration in mathematics, as far as I can see, this would not be able to count as impact.

You might think that dissemination to the public could count as impact, but even here one must have strong evidence that considerable effects have happened. The giving of public lectures, or the appearance on radio or television by itself does not suffice. Unless there happened to be, say, ranks of high school teachers who have changed their practices because of things said at the Café, again that’s another non-starter.

I’m eager to hear how UK mathematicians are coping with this challenge. Is any work by, say, Café hosts Tom Leinster and Simon Willerton to be included in their respective departments’ impact narratives?

Posted at January 3, 2011 3:37 PM UTC

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Re: Impact!

Is any work by, say, Café hosts Tom Leinster and Simon Willerton to be included in their respective departments’ impact narratives?

No one’s asked me, but I’d be surprised if anything I’ve done here counts as impact. This blog is largely about academics communicating with other academics, and although there’s a sizeable minority of readers who don’t have formal academic positions, it’s a bit like the situation you mention with the public lectures. I don’t have any evidence of any non-mathematical change I’ve brought about as a result of this blog.

Given that our own school contains statisticians of a quite applied variety, and some quite applied applied mathematicians, I guess we’ll be leaning on them for our “impact”. I can see that a department of philosophy is going to be in a more difficult position.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 3, 2011 10:57 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

These requirements truly are narrow-minded and pernicious. Aristotle, I imagine, could claim his work on logic would eventually impact the design and operation of automated reasoning systems in software systems such as those controlling nuclear power plants, but the 2300 years his work has taken to achieve these impacts is outside the REF’s allowed timescale.


Posted by: Peter McBurney on January 3, 2011 11:55 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

Yes, we are only allowed to reach back 15 years for research of an ‘impactful’ nature. After 307 BC even Aristotle’s work done on his deathbed would have counted for nothing.

Posted by: David Corfield on January 4, 2011 8:18 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

Simon, Tom, obviously your activity here at the cafe and as a Catster attracts an audience well beyond academics, so that seems to be a clear case of impact; e.g. many computer scientists in private companies are very keen on category theory - you may have to include the term “popularizing”.

Posted by: bob on January 4, 2011 2:20 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

They would need to gather evidence for such impact. So go ahead all you non-academics of whichever nationality – has anything (written, blogged, videoed, etc.) done by a British-based academic connected to the Café led to any form of influence on your daily lives, working or otherwise?

Posted by: David Corfield on January 4, 2011 2:42 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

So the impact has to influence someone outside of academia, but what is an impact?

My guess is that the interpretation “an impact is an application of a method or a result, that was a driving force in academic research, by someone outside of academia to a problem that is not of purely academic interest” is a little bit too narrow.

This interpretation would be too narrow for theoretical physics, too, by the way, especially with the 15 year rule.

On the other hand, when

The Higher Education Funding Council for England argue that their measure of “impact” is a broad one which will encompass impact upon the “economy, society, public policy, culture and the quality of life”

…and I say that the n-café has an impact on my quality of life because I enjoy reading the posts, I guess that the members of said council will advise me that this interpretation is a little bit too broad.

Or maybe not?

Posted by: Tim van Beek on January 4, 2011 3:37 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

The problem is that useful `impact’ there may be and if questioned the politicians who ask for this sort of garbage evaluation would be pleased to acknowledge that, but often within the administrative machinery of universities and more locally within departments, `impact’ will be interpreted in a very different way. There are official `bean-counters’ in the government offices who will accept that although a pea is not a bean it is as good as one and so is good and is allowed, but in the university administration, they will interpret a bean as a bean (and may even say it should be green and not white or red). Then the internal politics of the faculties starts kicking in to disallow certain beans as invalid, because someone want more of the money and power for their research group. (Perhaps I have a sad view of university life, but experience has too often proved it to be a realistic one. :-))

The battle over impact factors is one that has to be fought hard. David’s original question related to philosophy, and there the impact of research in philosophy departments is great, especially in artificial intelligence. Direct impact is not easy to prove, but neither is direct impact for a biochemical advance. Modal logics grew out of philosophical enquiry but are now applied to problems in control systems.

Posted by: Tim Porter on January 4, 2011 2:59 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

Regarding modal logic, with the 15 year rule in place, besides Aristotle, Dons Scotus and William of Ockham being discounted, even were C. I. Lewis or Saul Kripke to have worked in a British philosophy department, their work would be too old.

We could have some philosophical work on modal logic from the mid-1990s impacting in less than 15 years on work within the past couple of years. Any candidates?

Posted by: David Corfield on January 4, 2011 3:14 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

There is philosophical work on modal logic, also insights of philosophers (= members of university philosophy departments) on the logic itself (not necessarily philosophical insights), and finally philosophical insights of non-philosophers on modal logic.:-)

I have a particular point to make here. It has been said that a pure mathematical theory is deemed to be useless by economists until an economist publishes an economics paper on it, then it ceases to be mathematics and becomes economics, thus absolving the economist from admitting that there is useful pure mathematics. I would expect the same to be true of philosophy. Others sneak ideas from philosophy and then claim that as they are useful, they cannot be philosophy!

From the nCafé inhabitants, I would expect that some of the stuff that Tom and Simon have been discussing on metric spaces with weights etc, is just about ready to be stolen by some other discipline and turned into …. it will then be claimed as having impact!

Posted by: Tim Porter on January 4, 2011 3:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

The pea-bean comment reminds me of an occurrence from 10 years at a “Q and A about real-world impact” session held by a head of faculty (HOF) speaking to a computer science department. I think the faculty head was some sort of “concrete product” engineer (whether structural, chemical, etc) and was asked about some piece of research code being released into the public domain, because it was a bit interesting but not advanced enough or of wide enough interest to make a real commercial product. Paraphrasing,

HOF: “Well, you can try and sell it to someone like Microsoft.”

Response: “But on the off-chance they do buy it, the chances are it’ll just languish undeveloped and the sale will stop anyone else doing something with it. If we put it in the public domain people can try and…” (I’m sure he was going to continue “develop it as open source”. but he got cut off.)

HOF: But at least if you sell it to someone you can say you’ve tried, even if it doesn’t get used. I mean, it’s a chance of being used.

Clearly, the HOF was coming from a discipline where “open source tinkering” doesn’t make sense and didn’t think about that before answering, and it’s quite possible the code wouldn’t have had any further development as an open source project either, but it’s an example of people projecting their own ideas about which way things are impactful onto other fields.

Posted by: dave tweed on January 7, 2011 4:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

The Catsters now have over 1000 subscribers but it’s difficult to tell how many of them are genuine and how many of them are outside academia. We’ve certainly had comments from very interested lay people and very interested computer scientists, but it is difficult (probably impossible) to quantify what sort of impact we’ve had on people who aren’t doing mathematical courses on category theory. Nor is it easy to quantify what impact there has been in terms of inspiring copy-catster video channels.

One would have thought that this sort of thing ought to count as an(!) impact, but how can you measure it?

As far as I know, the mathematical sciences sub-panel has not yet decided what they are going to interpret impact as meaning; indeed I don’t think there is a sub-panel yet, there’s only a chair of the sub-panel so far.

Posted by: Simon Willerton on January 4, 2011 5:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

I think the biggest external impact of the nCafé/nLab/nForum has been as a large example of effectively using MathML and to a lesser extent SVG in everyday communication. The n-sites are much further developed along these lines than Wikipedia and are often used as an exemplar of how MathML is not too undeveloped, buggy, complex, etc. for everyday infrastructure.

The subject matter - higher category theory - probably doesn’t have any impact other than on categorically inclined mathematicians which doesn’t seem to fall under the REF technical definition of ‘impact’.

I am reminded of a situation years ago when I was sent as an observer by a government agency to a ‘system deployment’. When I got back I wrote up a 6 page report of my opinions of how well things went and how well the systems actually addressed their purposes. The content of my report was ignored (as is usual). However I was called in to explain how I was able to write, format, print, and turn in such a gorgeous looking report in the 2 days following my return. The ‘impact’ of my report was the agency getting new hardware and software for word processing.

Posted by: Rod McGuire on January 4, 2011 3:32 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

I think the biggest external impact of the nCafé/nLab/nForum has been as a large example of effectively using MathML and to a lesser extent SVG in everyday communication.

Now we need to find people outside of academia who use MathML in their everyday communication :-)

(Count me out.)

Posted by: Tim van Beek on January 4, 2011 3:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

What software were you using, and what software did they decide to use?

Posted by: Tom Ellis on January 4, 2011 4:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

I have just noticed that Zentralblatt MATH (a commercial company) now gives you the option of seeing entries with their reviews, e.g. like this one, in MATHMl rather than TeX. That page doesn’t seem to display in vanilla Windows Explorer - a situation that normally would not exist except for the fact that many potential readers are now familiar with browsers that can display MATHMl - in part thanks to nCafe.

P.S. My ‘observer report’ was printed on our laboratory’s laser printer at a time when such were exotic toys and before the introduction of Apple’s mass market LaserWriter. The Govt Agency in part wanted to score political points as being a leader in adopting technological innovations.

Posted by: Rod McGuire on January 7, 2011 2:47 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

I think one should try to look how science and scientists are perceived among economists and politicians. Perhaps as data-delivering servants (and, when needed, punching bags)? Both servants and scientists share in the public view the values “reliability” and “objectivity”, a distinctive slang and a stress on reputability.The difference between them is that servants define by operative usefullness, science by understanding, insight, knowledge. The described focus on “impact” is precisely about challenging that difference. A few years ago, a mathematician wrote a parody on how MBA-thinking confuses those things, to his surprize, no-one noticed the satiric meaning and it became awarded as the years most influential management books. An other idea is that maybe the “idea of science” itself gets forgotten, in a kind of “platonic amnesia”.

Posted by: Thomas on January 5, 2011 6:37 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Impact!

Many of the comments so far have been non-combative, let me suggest an attack on the impact factor, bean-pushers, so-called social scientists, etc. If someone mentions to you the lack of impact of maths or philosophy, ask them to forgo for one week all use of computers, mobile phones, DVDs, the internet in any form, no use of scanners, nor MSRI scans for saving lives, etc. i.e. to forgo use of the entire basis of the modern culture that the combination of mathematics and engineering, building on earlier philosophical work on logic, has given us.

I used to work in Cork and taught one or two lecture courses in rooms in the old college building where G. Boole used to lecture. Boole was a mathematician, not a sociologist, nor a psychologist, nor a historian. His work built on earlier philosophical work (going right the way back to the Greeks). (What is the impact of Aristotle!) Without Boole no computers!

I often visited the mathematics department of the university of Manchester. This is now housed in the Alan Turing building. Turing, a mathematician, and his impact….? What about Max Newman also at Manchester, who proved fundamental results on formal languages. Their work at Bletchley Park was of ultimate importance in the second world war. (I will stop here as David’s original question related to the UK only so I won’t mention Coding theory etc., but you get the picture.)

Where is the problem? It is simple. The impact being measured in the REF is short term and often very fleeting. We work for the long term and permanence. We cannot predict where the applications will arise if they are more than a year or two ahead. (Hardly surprising given the long history of both philosophy and mathematics. The short term impact stuff was likely to be exhausted before the word `sociology’ had been thought of.) Perhaps the basis for the next big technological revolution is being laid down now and in this café, but we cannot tell. It may possibly be due to musings here and elsewhere on the potential for modelling biological phenomena using n-categorical ideas, but who knows.

Don’t let the bean-counters get away with the short term rubbish they push out and note that Korea, China and India are all spending a lot of effort on mathematical prowess in schools and in honing up the reasoning powers of their young engineers and scientists.

If we want to navel gaze, think about what areas of the n-cat scene could be improved to have more immediate impact. I have two thoughts on this. Basic categories involve lots of analogues of relationships, and comparisons. Multiple categories involve higher order relations between relations. can that be exploited in some non-trivial way, e.g. in artificial intelligence, that has not been considered yet.

The second thought is that within an \infty-groupoid, it should be feasible to add in some probabilistic composition. For instance, in a Kan complex we know that all horns have fillers, but are they all equally likely to happen!!!! developing that idea sounds fun and should be useful in modelling situations where there are numerous interacting effects with probability distributions governing the actual outcome.

Posted by: Tim Porter on January 7, 2011 9:06 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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