A recent trend in the financing of higher education has been to link research funding to evidence that the projects being funded have some practical or commercial value. One example of this is the United Kingdom’s Research Excellence Framework which ties research funding to a rather vaguely defined ‘impact’ assessment, thus requiring university departments to demonstrate the social relevance of their work.
For pharmaceutical chemists, metallurgical engineers, petroleum geologists, and many others, this probably isn’t a big issue. However, if like Lucky Jim in Kingsley Amis’ book of that name, you are studying ‘The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485’, you are going to find it more difficult to prove the social utility of what you are doing.
Frankly, I think that the whole process is rather silly. Take, for instance, my own doctoral thesis and first book, The White Russian Army in Exile, 1920-1941. The book is about a Russian émigré military organization known as ROVS (Russkii Obshche-Voinskii Soiuz in Russian, the Russian General Military Union in English), founded by General P.N. Wrangel in 1924.
There was a reason nobody had studied this group before: White Russian émigrés were regarded as historical dead-enders who left no legacy. This was a thoroughly obscure history of a thoroughly obscure organization, whose original members had all died off by the time I came to study it. Its impact on anything: zero.
In a startling twist of history, ROVS hung on not just all through the 1920s but longer than the Bolsheviks. It outlasted the Cold War and returned to Russia. And more than that, it has suddenly this year grown back into an organization of political relevance.
The current leader of ROVS, Igor Borisovich Ivanov, was for a while Deputy Chief of Staff and head of the political department of the army of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine. In a statement he issued in September (a transcript translated into English is available here), he talks about changes in the rebel leadership which led to his resignation, and his dislike of the ideological orientation of the new leaders.
To get the full impact of Ivanov’s message, you need to know a little about the organization he heads and what it stands for. Equally, some of the backstage (or backstab) manoeuvring in Russian and Ukrainian affairs makes far more sense if you are familiar with the history and ideology of ROVS (see on this point an article I wrote a few weeks ago for The American Conservative magazine. ).
My esoteric historical study has unexpectedly become useful. When writing The White Russian Army in Exile, I never dreamed that it would be of any ‘use’ for anything. That wasn’t the point. Had I been forced to carry out an ‘impact assessment’, I would have had to say its practical value was nil. But I would have been wrong! Fifteen years later, having happened to have learned all about this particular obscure vignette in history has enabled me to provide a unique perspective on a matter of considerable importance.
In short, all knowledge is potentially useful and should be pursued as an objective in itself.