Friday, 25 February 2011

UK REF Philosophy Panel

The ludicrously entitled Research Excellence Framework  is the exercise whereby research in academic disciplines in the UK is measured by panels who determine the level of "quality" of specific research submissions. It is not only the title of the exercise that is ludicrous since the means by which decisions are reached in regard to research submitted is also not apparent and the process by which panel members are selected is further not subject to anything other than a general consultation exercise with academic societies. The actual money available from the exercise can be altered also by arbitrary and late government decisions concerning where the cut-off point for funding should be. So all things considered it is not exactly an exercise that inspires hope for the flourishing of interesting and important work in UK universities. This is why, as reported in an earlier posting, there is a campaign amongst some to boycott the whole exercise. 

Nonetheless I am sure many academics in the UK will be interested to scrutinise the names of the latest panelists in their subject areas and I am listing below all the members of the philosophy panel with a brief mention of some of the notable contributions panel members have thus far made to philosophy:

The chair of the panel this time is Alexander Bird from the University of Bristol. Bird's last book was published in 2007 and is entitled Nature's Metaphysics: Laws and Properties and is a contribution to the philosophy of science. His most recent articles also indicate an interest in philosophy of science and analytic metaphysics.

The other panel members are, like Bird, with the exception of two people, Professors though why Professors should, simply by virtue of holding this status be thought better able to assess research "quality" than others is not clear. One of the two who is not a Professor is Julian Baggini who is best known as co-editor of The Philosopher's Magazine and who contributes a great deal to a wider public diffusion of philosophy as is evident in his philosophy monthly. Many of his books are on the same wave-length including the latest, Do They Think You're Stupid? which analyses and responds to "spin doctors". Baggini's inclusion on the panel appears to be part of a response to the "impact" agenda and a demonstration of the "relevance" of philosophy though presumably it is also thought that applied philosophical discussions generally will be ones he can assess. The fact that, in including him, we have someone from outside the university on the panel is an interesting development since, whilst it reflects a welcome understanding that not all philosophy is carried out in the university, it also raises interesting questions concerning why the panel is not therefore also assessing and potentially rewarding contributions that are not generated inside universities.

Nancy Cartwright from the London School of Economics is the next panel member and her last book, published in 2007, was Hunting Causes and Using Them: Approaches in Philosophy and Economics. Her general specialisation, as with Bird, is the philosophy of science though she also is concerned with the notion of "evidence" in "evidence-based policy", something that many a government seems to disregard. 

Gregory Currie from the University of Nottingham published in 2010 the work Narratives and Narrators: A Philosophy of Stories and appears to have a major interest in the notion of the imagination and so is likely to be called on to evaluate material in the area of aesthetics.

Nicholas Davey from the University of Dundee is the current President of the British Society for Phenomenology and his last book, published in 2006, was Unquiet Understanding: Gadamer's Philosophical Understanding which is a contribution to hermeneutics. Davey is one of the panel members who is evidently intended to respond to European philosophy specifically. 

Katherine Hawley from the University of St. Andrews works mainly in analytical metaphysics and epistemology but also publishes in the area of philosophy of science.  Whilst she does not appear to have published a book for sometime she is very active in journal publication.

Cynthia Macdonald from Queen's University Belfast works primarily in philosophy of mind on which she has published a number of book chapters but not, since 2005, any monographs.

Michael Martin from University College London is apparently completing a book on philosophy of perception but is also interested in David Hume. 

Catherine Osborne from the University of East Anglia is a specialist in ancient philosophy having published in 2009 two books on the area, one a specialist text on an ancient commentary on Aristotle's physics and the other Dumb Beasts and Dead Philosophers: Humanity and the Humane in Ancient Philosophy and Literature.

Thomas Pink from Kings College London works on free will and moral normativity and has forthcoming a work on moral action. He is also interested in the work of Thomas Hobbes and is editing an edition of the Hobbes-Bramall exchange on free will.

Robert Stern from the University of Sheffield is the editor of the European Journal of Philosophy and current President of the Hegel Society of Great Britain. His most recent book, published in 2009, is Hegelian Metaphysics.

Alison Stone, from Lancaster University, is the second non-Professor on the panel. She is currently working on a book on feminism and psychoanalysis and her last book, published in 2006, was Luce Irigaray and the Philosophy of Sexual Difference.

Raymond Tallis from the University of Manchester is not based in a department of philosophy as his original specialism is medicine and his latest book is Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence.

Heather Widdows from the University of Birmingham who works in the general area of global ethics and is editor of the Journal of Global Ethics. She has an introduction to global ethics forthcoming.

Some reflections on the composition of the panel in terms of how it relates to philosophy in general and the academic divisions in the UK are surely in order. Firstly, and most strikingly, there is not a single representative from any of the so-called "new universities" that in 1992 were renamed as such in the wake of the abolition of the previous divide between universities and polytechnics. Given the breadth of the panel in terms of general philosophical interests it is striking that it was not thought to be worth including a single person from this sector of the academy.

Secondly, the gender balance is almost equal with 8 men and 6 women so there was evidently an intention to think in a structural way about the representation of women in philosophy. It is, though, true that only one representative on the panel is a specialist in feminist philosophy and there is no one who appears to have specific interest in any other aspect of gender questions on the panel.

Thirdly, there are interesting imbalances in terms of the specialisms within philosophy. Of the 14 members of the panel only 1 has a specialist background in aesthetics. Not all areas of the history of philosophy are represented and there appears to be no specific attention to history of philosophy in terms of the panel's composition.

There is clear attention to "applied" philosophy and some specialists in the areas of ethics but no one with a specialist background in political philosophy is represented, an odd omission. There are 3 people out of the total 14 who can respond to European philosophy which is a small number. By contrast, philosophy of science, metaphysics and philosophy of mind appear to be areas rather well represented which indicates definite views about which areas of philosophy are expected to be fertile in work of "excellent" quality. It is something of a mystery, at least to me, why it is that there are 2 representatives of what we might term "popular" philosophy on the panel. It is not that this is not a reasonable area of philosophy. Rather, it renders unclear what the panel is assessing as this should broaden the remit outside the university and into other areas in which philosophical activity might be thought to be occurring and from sources who may themselves be outside the university but I have little idea as to how the panel might be able to accomplish this. 

Given the general cuts to higher education in the wake of the Browne report it is highly likely, whatever the work of panel members, that the result of the exercise will be much more concentration of research monies into fewer hands.

According to a new report in the Times Higher the weighting of "impact" factors in the exercise will be less than previously thought but will still be assessed in a uniform way across very different disciplines after a pilot exercise was undertaken. The pilot exercise did not include philosophy as a discipline and it remains unclear how it would be assessed in philosophy in general and certain specific areas in particular. 

Finally, the destructive work carried out by the Browne report continues to reverberate as reported over at the Brooks Blog where the postponement of the projected White Paper meant to emerge from government concerning implementation of its response to Browne is analysed. Generally the "impact" of Browne itself continues to be one that will merit study concerning the destructive response of the UK political class towards higher education in general and philosophy in particular.

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