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  • Encounters with Impact
  • Wendelin Werner (bio) and Roxanne Lapidus

One of the recurring themes in discussions among mathematicians, whether in informal lunch hour talks or in more formal committees, is what might be called "simplistic impact-bashing." We are more and more often facing words that seem totally foreign to us—impact, impact factor, excellence, etc.—and we feel no doubt somewhat like people who are too old to adapt to new technologies or new habits. However, despite this unanimity against them, these concepts seem inexorably to infiltrate every branch of our academic institutions, and progressively to invade the applications for financial support that we are ever more frequently required to fill out. It's not rare to hear that there's no point in fighting losing battles. This one is already lost, they say, and we must learn to live with the importance of "impact" in the world of "today."

We are also sometimes called to the rescue by colleagues in other disciplines— usually the humanities—who hope our "hard" science is better armed against this quantification of research performance, since we can more easily demonstrate it via equations or irrefutable mathematical reasoning. Then we are obliged to disappoint them, for these assessments of impact are problematic at a more fundamental level, not simply that of transforming information into numbers.

It would certainly be easy to dismantle line by line the absurdity of the texts produced by organizations such as Research Council UK. Thus in summer 2012 one could read on the website of this venerable institution :

Impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy. Impact embraces all the extremely diverse ways in which research-related knowledge and skills benefit individual, organisations and nations by:

  • — fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom;

  • — increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy;

  • — enhancing quality of life, health and creative output.

Impact has always been at the core of RCUK.


RCUK's impact strategy was launched in March 2010 and will ensure that we build on our past successes and maximise and celebrate the impact generated from the research, people and facilities that we fund. The strategy also builds upon the Excellence with Impact: Framework for the Future 1 [End Page 62]

One is at a loss when confronted with this phraseology, in which it is often difficult to discern the slightest rapport with our own activity or what motivates it. Furthermore, "packaging" here seems almost on an equal footing with scientific content ("demonstratable," "maximise and celebrate.") Nevertheless, my intent in the present text is not to develop a theoretical discourse, which others can do better than I, but to give some concrete illustrations from my own encounters with this technocratic approach to scientific research, inspired by the practices of accounting or marketing. Perhaps these few elements can shed light on certain aspects that are specific to our era, in this traditional interface between the world of academic research and that of socio-economics and politics. I would also like to describe some aspects of the particular world of academic research in mathematics (which functions somewhat differently from the more "experimental" sciences), since this may be of some interest, especially to our colleagues in the humanities. The present text may seem a bit disjointed, like a collection of narrowly focused stories and typically French digressions, but I hope that despite this, a certain coherence will emerge.

I grew up and studied in France, reaching the age of 20 in 1988. It was an era in which business schools (like HEC—l'École des Hautes Etudes Commerciales) and consulting agencies (like the Arthur Anderson consulting group) had the wind in their sails and began to attract some of the best students in France. It was also a time when icons like Bernard Tapie incarnated a new kind of "success" in the media. But it was still easy for students like me, interested mainly in the scientific content of courses, to choose scientific study. I focused on mathematics, and more precisely, on probability theory, in which I defended my thesis in 1993. This era also saw the emergence of "financial mathematics," which...


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