Tag Archive for: ideas

MONTHLY BLOG 140, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 8: Annual Memorial Service at Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery, to celebrate the life of India’s remarkable religious, social & educational reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833)

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Republic of India postage stamp (1964),
where his name has alternative spelling as Mohun Roy.

Eighteenth-century Britain witnessed a veritable ferment of ideas. Religious reformers and traditionalists within Christianity battled with one another, whilst religious sceptics, known as ‘freethinkers’, argued against all forms of revealed religion. It was a time for rethinking and renewal; and not just in Britain.

India’s age-old Hindu tradition was also witnessing its own upheavals. One of its most remarkable reformers was a Bengali thinker named Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833).1 He came from a well-established Brahmin family; and was well educated in an array of languages, although the precise details of his schooling remain disputed. He became familiar with Persian and Arabic studies, as well as with classical Sanskrit. Later he learned other languages, including Latin and Greek. Very evidently, he was a gifted linguist.

But Raja Ram Mohan Roy went further. During his formative years, he interacted with spiritual teachers from diverse religious traditions. One was a famous Baptist missionary in India, William Carey (1761-1834). A growing characteristic of Ram Mohan Roy’s own thought was his desire to see into the heart of religion, to find the one true source of godliness. And his companion wish was to purify religious observances, so that external conventions and rituals did not distract worshippers from the chance of a genuine religious experience.

Such an approach was very characteristic of fundamentalist religious reformers. However, Mohan Roy did not break from the Hindu faith to achieve his aims. He remained within its broad-based tradition, and tried to update its customs. Prominent among the targets which he sought to reform were polygamy; child marriage; and the caste system, whereby people were ‘allocated’ to one social position at birth and kept there by rigid custom. Roy was also vehement against the traditional practice of ‘sati’ or ‘suttee’, which required widows to sacrifice their lives on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands.

These campaigns turned Ram Mohan Roy into not only a powerful religious moderniser but also a significant social and educational reformer. He was a liberal pioneer of women’s rights.2 He wrote prolifically. He founded educational institutions. He co-founded the Kolkata/Calcutta Unitarian Society and also founded the Brahma Samaj (a social reform group within Hinduism). He supported the use of English in Indian education. In some ways, then, he can be regarded as vector for the spread of Western ideas into India, in that he wanted India to shed its outmoded customs and to become ‘modernised’, like its then rulers – the officials in the East India Company, for whom Roy had worked.3

At the same time, however, Ram Mohan Roy was also a great example of the rich eclecticism of the Hindu tradition. He believed in the inner ‘oneness’ of all religion. (This aspect of his thought appealed to many British and American Unitarians, who abjured Trinitarian Christianity to worship the one divine power). And Ram Mohan Roy clearly did not seek a personal redeemer. So for him there was little point in changing churches, when the divine can be worshipped everywhere: God is one. He has no end. He exists in all the living things on the Earth’.

There were well known later debates within India, as to how far Roy was simply a ‘child of the West’. Yet that viewpoint misses the strength of his Hindu spiritualism. Moreover, he was sufficient of an Indian gentleman to accept the honorific title of ‘Raja’ (prince) from the Mughal Emperor Akbar II in 1830. A determined reformer; yes; but not a social revolutionary.

In September 1833, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was visiting Britain, as an imperial envoy from India. Staying at the small village of Stapleton, near Bristol, he fell ill suddenly and died of meningitis. He was initially buried quietly in the grounds of the house where he had died. But a decade later, his remains were re-interred at the new Arnos Vale Cemetery, at Brislington in East Bristol. This venue was not monopolised by any specific faith. It contains both an Anglican and a Nonconformist Mortuary Chapel; and the authorities made no objection to the inclusion of a devout Hindu.

Ram Mohan Roy’s grave, topped by an Indian Mausoleum, was a fitting component of this ecumenical resting place. At this spot, an annual commemoration of his life and teachings is held every September, at or near the date of his death. Dignitaries like the Mayor of Bristol and the Indian High Commissioner are joined by all other Indians and Britons who wish to share in the remembrance service. There is also a fine statue of Mohan Roy on Bristol’s College Green. And at Stapleton, too, there is today a memorial plaque and a pedestrian walk, named in his honour.       

He did not, of course, plan to die in Bristol. But for Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the apostle of spiritual oneness, there is a certain aptness in finding a peaceful resting-place among the dead of many faiths and none. For the history of Georgian Britain, too, Mohan Roy’s quest for spiritual enlightenment and social reform was part of the ferment of debates between believers and freethinkers.

Many globe-trotting Britons ventured to India in these years. Some were seeking colonial power and trading profits, while others, like William Carey, were intent on saving souls. Yet the exchange of ideas and peoples was not just one way. Where then are respects rightly paid to the remarkable Indian reformer, who was the ‘parent of the Bengal Renaissance’ and also a citizen of the world? Why, in Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery, every September.


1 See variously H.D. Sharma, Raja Ram Mohan Roy: The Renaissance Man (2002); D.C. Vyas, Biography of Raja Ram Mohan Roy (New Delhi, 2010); P. Kumari, Women, Social Customs and Raja Ram Mohan Roy (Patna, 2013).

2 Mohan Roy himself married three times. His first two wives predeceased him, and his third wife outlived him, without, of course, committing sati after his death.

3 Among a huge literature, see variously: J. Keay, The Honourable Company: A History of the East India Company (1991; 2017); S. Sen, Empire of Free Trade: The East India Company and Making of the Colonial Marketplace (Philadelphia, 1998); M. Chowdhury, Empire and Gunpowder: Military Industrialization and Ascendancy of the East India Company in India, 1757-1856 (New Delhi, 2022).


For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 140 please click here

MONTHLY BLOG 105, Researchers, Do Your Ideas Have Impact? A Critique of Short-Term Impact Assessments

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Clenched Fist
© Victor-Portal-Fist (2019)

 Researchers, do your ideas have impact? Does your work produce ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’? Since 2014, that question has been addressed to all research-active UK academics during the assessments for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is the new ‘improved’ name for the older Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).1

From its first proposal, however, and long before implementation, the Impact Agenda has proved controversial.2 Each academic is asked to produce for assessment, within a specified timespan (usually seven years), four items of published research. These contributions may be long or short, major or minor. But, in the unlovely terminology of the assessment world, each one is termed a ‘Unit of Output’ and is marked separately. Then the results can be tallied for each researcher, for each Department or Faculty, and for each University. The process is mechanistic, putting the delivery of quantity ahead of quality. And now the REF’s whistle demands demonstrable civic ‘impact’ as well.

These changes add to the complexities of an already intricate and unduly time-consuming assessment process. But ‘Impact’ certainly sounds great. It’s punchy, powerful: Pow! When hearing criticisms of this requirement, people are prone to protest: ‘But surely you want your research to have impact?’ To which the answer is clearly ‘Yes’. No-one wants to be irrelevant and ignored.

However, much depends upon the definition of impact – and whether it is appropriate to expect measurable impact from each individual Unit of Output. Counting/assessing each individual tree is a methodology that will serve only to obscure sight of the entire forest. And will hamper its future growth.

In some cases, to be sure, immediate impact can be readily demonstrated. A historian working on a popular topic can display new results in a special exhibition, assuming that provision is made for the time and organisational effort required. Attendance figures can then be tallied and appreciative visitors’ comments logged. (Fortunately, people who make an effort to attend an exhibition usually reply ‘Yes’ when asked ‘Did you learn something new?’). Bingo. The virtuous circle is closed: new research → an innovative exhibition → gratified and informed members of the public → relieved University administrators → happy politicians and voters.

Yet not all research topics are suitable to generate, within the timespan of the research assessment cycle, the exhibitions, TV programmes, radio interviews, Twitterstorms, applied welfare programmes, environmental improvements, or any of the other multifarious means of bringing the subject to public attention and benefit.

The current approach focuses upon the short-term and upon the first applications of knowledge rather than upon the long-term and the often indirect slow-fuse combustion effects of innovative research. It fails to register that new ideas do not automatically have instant success. Some of the greatest innovations take time – sometimes a very long time – to become appreciated even by fellow researchers, let alone by the general public. Moreover, in many research fields, there has to be scope for ‘trial and error’. Short-term failures are part of the price of innovation for ultimate long-term gain. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the history of science and technology contains many examples of wrong turnings and mistakes, along the pathways to improvement.3

An Einstein, challenging the research fundamentals of his subject, would get short shrift in today’s assessment world. It took 15 years between the first publication of his paper on Special Relativity in 1905 and the wider scientific acceptance of his theory, once his predictions were confirmed experimentally. And it has taken another hundred years for the full scientific and cultural applications of the core concept to become both applied and absorbed.4 But even then, some of Einstein’s later ideas, in search of a Unified Field Theory to embrace analytically all the fundamental forces of nature, have not (yet) been accepted by his fellow scientists.5 Even a towering genius can err.

Knowledge is a fluid and ever-debated resource which has many different applications over time. Applied subjects (such as engineering; medicine; architecture; public health) are much more likely to have detectable and direct ‘impact’, although those fields also require time for development. ‘Pure’ or theoretical subjects (like mathematics), meanwhile, are more likely to achieve their effects indirectly. Yet technology and the sciences – let alone many other aspects of life – could not thrive without the calculative powers of mathematics, as the unspoken language of science. Moreover, it is not unknown for advances in ‘pure’ mathematics, which have no apparent immediate use, to become crucial many years subsequently. (An example is the role of abstract Number Theory for the later development of both cryptography and digital computing).6

Hence the Impact Agenda is alarmingly short-termist in its formulation. It is liable to discourage blue skies innovation and originality, in the haste to produce the required volume of output with proven impact.

It is also fundamentally wrong that the assessment formula precludes the contribution of research to teaching and vice versa. Historically, the proud boast of the Universities has been the integral link between both those activities. Academics are not just transmitting current knowhow to the next generation of students but they (with the stimulus and often the direct cooperation of their students) are simultaneously working to expand, refine, debate, develop and apply the entire corpus of knowledge itself. Moreover, they are undertaking these processes within an international framework of shared endeavour. This comment does not imply, by the way, that all knowledge is originally derived from academics. It comes indeed from multiple human resources, the unlearned as well as learned. Yet increasingly it is the research Universities which play a leading role in collecting, systematising, testing, critiquing, applying, developing and advancing the entire corpus of human knowledge, which provides the essential firepower for today’s economies and societies.7

These considerations make the current Impact Agenda all the more disappointing. It ignores the combined impact of research upon teaching, and vice versa. It privileges ‘applied’ over ‘pure’ knowledge. It prefers instant contributions over long-term development. It discourages innovation, sharing and cooperation. And it entirely ignores the international context of knowledge development and its transmission. Instead, it encourages researchers to break down their output into bite-sized chunks; to be risk-averse; to try for crowd-pleasers; and to feel harried and unloved, as all sectors of the educational world are supposed to compete endlessly against one another.

No one gains from warped assessment systems. Instead, everyone loses, as civic trust is eroded. Accountability is an entirely ‘good thing’. But only when done intelligently and without discouraging innovation. ‘Trial and error’ contains the possibility of error, for the greater good. So the quest for instant and local impact should not be overdone. True impact entails a degree of adventure, which should be figured into the system. To repeat a dictum which is commonly attributed to Einstein (because it summarises his known viewpoint), original research requires an element of uncertainty: ‘If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called “research”, would it?’8


1 See The Research Excellence Framework: Diversity, Collaboration, Impact Criteria, and Preparing for Open Access (Westminster, 2019); and historical context in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_Assessment_Exercise.

2 See e.g. B.R. Martin, ‘The Research Excellence Framework and the “Impact Agenda”: Are We Creating a Frankenstein Monster?’ Research Evaluation, 20 (Sept. 2011), pp. 247-54; and other contributions in same issue.

3 S. Firestein, Failure: Why Science is So Successful (Oxford, 2015); [History of Science Congress Papers], Failed Innovations: Symposium (1992).

4 See P.C.W. Davies, About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (New York, 1995); L.P. Williams (ed.), Relativity Theory: Its Origins and Impact on Modern Thought (Chichester, 1968); C. Christodoulides, The Special Theory of Relativity: Foundations, Theory, Verification, Applications (2016).

5 F. Finster and others (eds), Quantum Field Theory and Gravity: Conceptual and Mathematical Advances in the Search for a Unified Framework (Basel, 2012).

6 M.R. Schroeder, Number Theory in Science and Communications: With Applications in Cryptography, Physics, Biology, Digital Information and Computing (Berlin, 2008).

7 J. Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (Princeton, 2002); A. Valero and J. van Reenen, ‘The Economic Impact of Universities: Evidence from Across the Globe’ (CEP Discussion Paper No. 1444, 2016), in Vox: https://voxeu.org/article/how-universities-boost-economic-growth

8 For the common attribution and its uncertainty, see [D. Hirshman], ‘Adventures in Fact-Checking: Einstein Quote Edition’, https://asociologist.com/2010/09/04/adventures-in-fact-checking-einstein-quote-edition/

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 105 please click here